Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self, and Calculative Reason.
Formations of the Secular.
Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America.
Betz, John R. After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann.
Blumenberg, Hans. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age and The Genesis of the Copernican World.
Brague, Rémi. The Kingdom of Man: The Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project.
Migrations of the Holy.
The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict.
Connolly, William E. Why I Am Not a Secularist.
Del Noce, Augusto. The Crisis of Modernity. (Translated by Carlo Lancellotti.)
Dupre, Louis. The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture. (A trilogy.)
Funkenstein, Amos. Theology and the Scientific Imagination.
Gaukroger, Stephen. 4 volumes on the emergence of scientific culture.
Gillespie, Michael Allen. Theological Origins of Modernity.
Gonzales, Philip John Paul (editor). Exorcising Philosophical Modernity: Cyril O’Regan and Christian Discourse after Modernity.
Gregory, Brad. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.
Harries, Karsten. Infinity and Perspective. (Derrick Peterson’s all time favorite academic book on the scientific revolution.)
Harrison, Peter. The Territories of Science and Religion.
Hoff, Johannes. The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa (A top recommendation by Jonathan McCormack. See comments at this blog post.)
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. (Goes after logical positivism.)
Josephson-Storm, Jason Ānanda.
Metamodernism: The Future of Theory.
The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences.
Koyre, Alexander. From a Closed World to the Infinite Universe.
MacIntyre, Alasdaire. His quadrilogy.
Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions.
Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason.
Beyond Secular Order. (Shorter treatment.)
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Knowledge and the Sacred.
Nongbri, Brent. Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept.
Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Theology and the Philosophy of Science and Anthropology in Theological Perspective.
Peterson, Derrick. Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes.
Pfau, Thomas. Minding the Modern. (From the angle of anthropology.)
Smith, James K. A. After Modernity?: Secularity, Globalization, and the Reenchantment of the World.
Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. The Meaning and End of Religion.
A Secular Age. (Recapped in How (Not) to Be Secular by James K. A. Smith.)
Sources of the Self.
Barbour, Ian. Religion in an Age of Science. Two volumes.
Lincoln, Bruce. Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After 9/11.
Tyson, Paul. Defragmenting Modernity. (Superb, easy distillation of Milbank’s and the RO’s critique of modernity recommended by Jonathan McCormack.)
Beck, Richard. Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age.
Freeman, Stephen. Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.
Hart, David Bentley. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.
Lewis, C. S. Abolition of Man.
Trueman, Carl. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.
Pro Modernity and Secularism Perspectives:
The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective.
Feast of Fools.
Inspirational quotation from none of the above books:
I take …complacency with regard to the post-religious rationalism of our age to be curiously oblivious to the extraordinary violence that has always been part of the history and the logic of secular modernity: the oceans of blood spilled by the wars of the emergent nation states, the nationalist and imperialist and colonialist adventures of early and late modernity, the racialist ideologies and totalitarian regimes incubated in the deep shadows cast by Enlightenment rationalism, the rise of early modern and industrial and late consumerist capitalism with all the evils—the rebirth of chattel slavery, the commodification of labor, the exploitation of impoverished labor markets, and so on—with which the whole history may justly be charged, the wars of terror we are willing to prosecute in the name of something called liberal democracy in order to protect the sacred space of that consumerist culture from any threat foreign or domestic, and so on.
From Theological Territories by David Bentley Hart.
“For if joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Light and hope break into the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien from every direction—with the descent of eagles, the arrival of friends, the return of wizards, and the fireside meals of hobbits. However, his stories remain tightly encased within a realm of death and separation. Yes, Aragon leads the armies of elves, dwarves, men (and even a few hobbits) in a desperate bid to distract Sauron himself and to allow Frodo, Sam and Gollum to overthrow him decisively. However, the real point of the older stories—first written years earlier by a pious young language scholar and further developed after his return from the devastation of the First World War—is that Arwen must say farewell forever to her father and then again to her husband who must leave her to receive death alone. Tolkien offers no final escape from death and separation for all of time.
True, we get an even larger story within which our world of death and time fit. As Eru Ilúvatar conceived the Ainur from his thought and taught each of them how to make music before the start of time, their singing weaves Eä into being as an embodied world (the cosmos of stars containing Arda as the planet holding Middle Earth). However, this world is almost immediately corrupted following the discordant song of Melkor who is allowed to enter Eä where he seeks domination over it and most especially over the Children of Ilúvatar (the divided households of Elves and Men) who have Eä as their home.
There are only two small hints given by Tolkien regarding any possible recovery from this containment of Ilúvatar’s children within a world bound by time, death, and eternal separation. First, from outside of time, we are given the account of the third theme in Eru’s music that Melkor found to be sweeter, more beautiful and ultimately unquenchable. What this theme might have contained is hinted at from within the history of Eä by only one obscure tale that went unpublished in Tolkien’s lifetime: “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth.”
This brief story describes a connection between this world of time and death and the timeless realm of Eru Ilúvatar which would allow communion to be restored one day between the Children of Ilúvatar and the Ainur—between the embodied world and that of solid light and song. In this story, Andreth (a wise-woman among humans) shares with Finrod (a wise-man among elves) about a set of ancient and almost entirely lost beliefs among some humans regarding the nature of human embodiment and the indissolubility of body and soul. Tolkien’s myth is so deep that it contains its own metaphysics, so body and soul here are not exactly what we might think of in our own understandings of these words, but to translate fëa as “soul” and hröa as “body” is the best that we can do here. They share of the mysterious bond between these two aspects of the Children of Ilúvatar (men and elves) in terms that suggest the inevitability of incarnation so that God’s image within embodied creation might be restored and all (or much) that is now bound by death might be restored:
What can this mean unless it be that the fëa shall have the power to uplift the hröa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Eä, and beyond Time? Thus would Arda, or part thereof, be healed not only of the taint of Melkor, but released even from the limits that were set for it in the ‘Vision of Eru’ of which the Valar speak.
Therefore, I say that if this can be believed, then mighty indeed under Eru were Men made in their beginning; and dreadful beyond all other calamities was the change in their state.
“Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” (likely completed in 1959 but not printed until 1993 within Morgoth’s Ring, the tenth volume of Christopher Tolkien’s 12-volume series The History of Middle-earth)
Beyond these two points of ultimate hope beyond the horizon of history, however, Tolkien keeps his stories confined tightly by the horizon of death and separation across all of time. Not only is there no reunion possible within history for elves and men, but humanity ultimately can do no more than accept their own death willingly (with no promise of a reunion between their fëa and hröa that would constitute a communion between the timeless realms of Eru and the storied cosmos of Eä—the union of earth and eternity).
Within this life, we should gaze upon the fountain in the sun but accept that it springs from “the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth.” This confinement to the realm of death is a great part of Tolkien’s faithfulness and gift to his readers. In part, it is related to his insistence that one-to-one allegory be strictly avoided within mythology and fairytale, but it goes beyond this to his insistence upon eucatastropy as the only truth available to us now. If Tolkien is right that we have nowhere to turn in this life but to “the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth,” how is this in any sense a hope? We can only recall what the Christian scriptures place at the foundations of our cosmos: a slain lamb (Revelation 13:8). This world is founded upon God’s own death.
Here Tolkien is within an old Christian tradition that considered death itself a gift prepared by God from the foundation of the cosmos as “the limits that were set for [Eä] in the ‘Vision of Eru’ of which the Valar speak.” This is a limit that even Finrod (an elven loremaster) is astounded to learn from the woman Andreth might ultimately be overcome. For virtually all the inhabitants of Tolkien’s mythical earth, this bondage to estrangement or death is a limit that was assumed to be a permanent aspect of their creation. Tolkien only hints at the incarnation and resurrection within one unpublished story, but the eucatastropy of the cross is clearly within view throughout his work. A death that must be accepted as a gift is central to Tolkien’s work and may be considered a basic aspect of the third theme in Eru’s music—the theme that finally overcomes Melkor’s discord.
As difficult as this cross is to bear, we must insist with Tolkien that the only way to the resurrection is through the grave. Tolkien took this so seriously, that he would not allow any form of human resurrection to enter into his mythology (other than the smallest hint within one unpublished story). This shows us not only the essential nature of death as a gift that we must receive but also the power of a truly human resurrection. When a human life overcomes death, “what can this mean unless it be that the fëa shall have the power to uplift the hröa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Eä, and beyond Time?” With death overcome, humanity has the capacity to unite all of embodied creation with God’s eternal life.
This is not to say that our world as we know it right now, under the bonds of death, is not also beautiful and communicative of the life, love and glory of God. However, this beauty of the Creator is only fully seen by a heart that has accepted death. Saint Pavel Florensky says:
The goal of the ascetic’s strivings is to perceive all of creation in its original triumphant beauty. The Holy Spirit reveals itself in the ability to see the beauty of creation. Always to see beauty in everything would be “to be resurrected before the universal resurrection,” to have a foretaste of the last Revelation, that of the Comforter.
From “Letter Nine” in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters by Pavel Florensky (translated by Boris Jakim)
Tolkien insists that the catastrophe is good and fills his stories with the in-breaking of this goodness (typically at its most wonderful when it comes from the most humble of sources, as we see within the goodness of Shire life). However, Tolkien insists with his mythology that our lot in this world is, ultimately, to take up our cross (Matthew 16:24-26) and to pray that, in our own flesh, we might be “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (Colossians 1:24, ESV). This is the ascetic’s strivings of which the saints teach which allows us to see the beauty of creation. Like the believing thief who hung beside Christ, may we die willingly with him.
For my own continued reflection (and further reading) and future reference, this is a partial transcription of Tony Golsby-Smith interviewing David Bentley Hart about On the Soul and the Resurrection by Gregory of Nyssa. It is the second of three planned conversations about Gregory (with a portion of the first transcribed here as well).
15:36 [Within On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory] lays out this vision of all of creation—not only fully subordinated to and reconciled to God—but one in which God himself becomes “all in all.” And it’s that “in all” that, to Gregory, is especially significant. It yields, in this treatise, this wonderful picture of the escatalogical reading, and I think the most coherent if you believe that—[with] all the texts of the New Testament—you should try to reconcile them with one another. I don’t necessarily believe that one must. I’m just saying that …if you are trying to do that, Gregory succeeds in doing it in a way that, say, Augustine didn’t. Augustin has to explain away hosts of verses whereas Gregory has to explain away nothing.
16:32 What emerges is a picture of two escatological horizons, one of which is the judgement on history. He sees this as being right there in the text. He is not imposing it on the text. Of course, then, history arrives at its consummation, and there is a real parting of the way of the righteous, the unrighteous, the somewhat righteous, the very righteous. Then the story is not over. He believes that, implicit in Paul and explicit in 1 Corinthians 15, is the vision of what the full consummation of reality is. It’s in verse 28. [NASB: “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.”] 18:08
…[Gregory] symbolically describes [this escatological vision] in terms of the temple of Jerusalem, how at first there are different [areas]: those outside the temple, those who are in the forecourt, those within the temple walls, those who could go into the sanctuary, and even then there is the holy of holies. Now, in the age, through the grace of God, all ultimately are brought into union.
19:39 …It’s the “all in all” passage [1 Corinthians 15:28]. …That was the favorite verse of Origen, and Gregory (or Macrina at least but Gregory [too]) follows Origen in that. The whole of the treatise culminates in explaining what that vision means. What does it mean to say that God is not only over all and God is not only praised by all, but that God is himself the all that is in all things.
23:48 Tony: “In my beginning is my end.” [He quotes from the opening of Part II in “Four Quartets” by T. S. Eliot after reading a passage from David Bentley Hart and then references how Gregory sees the final flourishing within the seed and understands each from the other so that “one cannot pull them apart.”
24:13 David: Although, even then, that’s from the perspective of time: the seed of flourishing and it’s consummation. In a sense, from the perspective of eternity, the end comes first and the beginning comes last. That notion from our last conversation, that the true humanity in the divine image perfected in the divine likeness and union with God is the man of the first creation account (Genesis 1). This is all human beings, throughout all time, united in spiritual harmony in their rational nature with Christ as their head, deified in God—this is the true creation. Until that reality comes to pass, creation has not yet happened in a sense, and in God’s eternity that is the reality that God from everlasting has made to be. In time, it is the end of our temporal course. In eternity, it is the very foundation of our existence. 25:28
33:11 [Our finite relation to God’s infinitude] is one of the distinctive features of Gregory’s usage (which would be picked up again by Maximus the Confessor). It’s been mischaracterized at times by people who don’t pay attention to his language. …In Gregory, this becomes a much more fertile category. With [Ekkehard] Mühlenberg, being a Lutheran, he sort of leaves out the deification aspect of it. It becomes what you’d think would actually be a kind of eternal torment: this endless asymptotic approach to God as a discrete object that he’ll never reach. Part of this is that, in Greek, the preposition “eis” can mean “in” or “into” or “toward” at times. For Gregory it’s clear that this is a growth “into” God, and that’s why that image of the vessel that expands as it’s filled has to be taken very seriously. It is not that Gregory imagines the soul running after an object that it will never reach, and that, just by remaining steadfast in virtue, that’s the eternity that awaits in the moral relation to God. It is a direct transfiguring divinization which is infinite in scope, and since we’re finite and mutable creatures, you could describe this in terms of an everlasting epektasis or stretching out that, nonetheless, is not a lack. It’s not the experience of a lack. It’s not even burdened by memory. He says that it’s not driven by the past in the way an imperfect desire would be (which would be burdened by regrets or things unachieved). Rather, it’s like a pure state of futurity in which the past is always being assumed into a greater present which is itself an openness to an infinite future of greater fulfillment. It’s unimaginable, obviously, in human terms, but he’s quite clear in what he’s talking about that it’s not an infinite frustration. He’s talking about understanding how the life of a creature in direct union with the infinite God is not in fact frustrated by the transcendence of the divine or the infinite disproportion between the infinite and the finite, but in fact that very distinction, that very disproportion, becomes the terms of an evermore intimate union.
This is a new thought. It really is. No one else before him in the philosophical or religious traditions—not even the most brilliant of Platonic philosophers—had really thought about this with quite the same originality. Plotinus anumbrates many of these things, but Gregory is the first to develop an actual metaphysics of the infinite and the finite in union. 37:29
38:00 One of the things you notice about Gregory is quite often you’re not sure where death is. Death doesn’t really interrupt anything. So quite often the spiritual life just keeps going. He’s talking the assent to God. It can start with Moses in this life standing steadfast in the good, not being moved either to one side or the other but only upward into God. And then, as the exposition proceeds, we can be talking about the soul in the kingdom of God. For him, it’s a continuum [as] we begin in this life.
He had a particular fondness for the image of the mirror, again drawn from Paul. Now we see as in a mirror dimly (or in an enigma). He takes that whole passage which also yields the image of epektasis—stretching out for that which yet lies ahead. He takes that image of the mirror as being an image of what we are as spirits. We see dimly because of the mirror of the soul which is the only place where God can be seen by finite eyes is in the soul as it’s progressively purified by the spirit so that the light of the Holy Spirit, so that the light of the human spirit is conducted into the height of mind by seeing the image of Christ ever more fully in the mirror of the soul. So we see God by seeing him mirrored in our own transformation into God. It’s exquisitely beautiful imagery in the way that he lays it out. 39:45
40:16 [Gregory] borrows the imagery from scripture in a creative way. He doesn’t assume that the metaphor ends with a simple parallelism. He takes that image of the mirror not simply as an image of obscurity but as a kind of clue to what it’s like to see God for a creature.
42:44 Tony: That image is the Feast of the Tabernacles as they move up into the temple, is the image you were referring to, that [Gregory] takes as the end of all things, when the elect, far from being chosen instead of everybody else are chosen before everybody else to invite all, as the language does here, to join in the festal procession.
David: There is evidence right there that Gregory is a better reader of Paul than Augustine is because, for all of his genius, Augustine, of course, makes the elect convertible with the number of the saved, but Paul clearly doesn’t. In Romans 11, it’s clear that the elect are those who have not stumbled, yet Paul goes on to say that those who have stumbled will not be allowed to fall. It’s clear the very notion of those who have been called in this world, for Paul, has nothing to do with the ultimate number of the redeemed. He is speaking of those who, for Paul at first, in the inexplicable way of God’s providence, even those Gentiles who by nature have no right to expect priority at all, have accepted Jesus and some Jews haven’t and how is this going to work out with God’s faithfulness to his people. Gregory never makes that mistake of confusing the number of the elect with the number of the saved because he clearly reads Paul better than Augustine does. 44:35
49:46 [Gregory] starts from the conviction that the only possible real existence of a fulfilled humanity is a full humanity created in the image and likeness of God in the totality of all human natures in union, and that this is a free act of accent to, of the creature to God, from the very first moment of its existence. From the beginning, creation is based on salvation. That is, if we weren’t always already—from the perspective of eternity—saved and united to God, creation couldn’t exist. If we had several hours, we could go into the logic of that, but I actually think it’s correct.
That means that, like Origen before him, he is taking 1 Corinthians 15 as a total picture of the gospel. Does it unite all the different witnesses of the New Testament or of Scripture in a way that is coherent and tends toward this final picture or at least is not repugnant to it? Again, Augustine failed. So much of Augustine is explaining away the explicit meaning of certain verses to make them conform to a much more parsimonious view of salvation, but Gregory doesn’t have to do that. Gregory has hell, like Origen there, and he sees in it this glorious process of purification which, unpleasant though it may be for some, ultimately is part of that same refining spiritual power of the Spirit which draws all things to God …until all together can approach the horns of the altar as one.
He says the great process of all spirits, of all noetic natures. He is quite clear, to a degree that even Origen wasn’t, that no one else was, that he means all fallen spirits (in the Oratio Catechetica). …For a father who is commemorated as a pillar of orthodoxy in later tradition, he is actually bolder than many figures who either were condemned or left out of the calendar of saints. He says in Oratio Catechetica that the devil may repine at having been fooled into inviting the conqueror into his kingdom. …Then he says that this too will redound to the benefit of the devil. This is a total universalism of the boldest sort. …Explicitly, systematically, relentlessly, he is the most unapologetic total universalist in Christian tradition. …I like to think of it as providence—that God has fixed in the calendar of the saints, a figure whose universalism couldn’t possibly be more systematic, more explicit and more biblically coherent. 55:53
59:31 [Gregory] is called the “Pillar of Orthodoxy,” but the conciliar title, now that I think about it, was actually “Father of Fathers.”
57:13 David: I kind of think of myself as a Falstaff in many ways.
Tony: I wasn’t going to mention it, David, but the thought did flit across my mind. Particularly Falstaff’s unparalleled ability for vituperative abuse of his opponents, I thought, surely, that dialectical tradition…
David: Thank you. That’s very flattering.
Tony: I thought you’d like it. [Laughing.] I was asked by [someone] yesterday when he interviewed me what I liked about you. I’m sorry to say, the first thing I said was, well, “David is funny.” I meant that Falstaffian irony that’s diverting.
David: As a matter of fact, I do take that as high praise. I find most theology incredibly boring.
David Armstrong recently recorded a conversation with Michael Martin. It’s all thought provoking, and you can find it here. Here are two highlights (out of many more). At one point, Michael Martin describes a forthcoming book by David Bentley Hart as having “inherited the mantle of the Inklings.”
53:29 David Armstrong: You’ve written quit a bit on the value of paganism. …I really dig this just as a scholar of religion and a fantasy nerd, among other things. It seems like there’s a lot of talk about these sorts of things. In the sciences, there are related paradigm shifts with the growth of panpsychism both in physicalist and idealist forms. Lewis, of course, famously thought that we have to become pagans again before we can become truly Christians. The animist and platonist attitudes toward reality are way closer to a Christian cosmology than secular modernity is. How can Christians reclaim, for lack of a better term, what is our native paganism?
Michael Martin: …I think that a Sophiological insight will bring you to this realization. David [Bentley Hart] gets into it in his Roland book. But wait until you see his next book. …I don’t know how he is pronouncing it: “Kenogia” [not sure the spelling]. It’s based on a kind of a retelling of the gnostic Hymn of the Pearl. It’s wonderful. He has inherited the mantle of the Inklings on this one. One of my kids is almost thirteen, and the other one is almost eleven. I can’t wait till the book gets out so that I can give it to those guys because they will be totally into it.
1:30:40 David Armstrong: If you read the Greek fathers, it’s clear that they are alterist [a term used by Alexander Khramov here], meaning that they believe that the cosmos as it exists now is still God’s creature but space, time and matter as they exist are fallen and so evolution as it exists involves death where it would not have otherwise. And corporeality is very different than it would have been otherwise. Adam and Eve, for the fathers and for most early Jews, start out as angelic beings.
Michael Martin: And after they are kicked out of the garden, it says that God makes for them coats of skin. It doesn’t say animal skins. It’s “coats of skin.” Like you, I think it’s a fall from a somewhat angelic state of being into a deeper fall into matter.
David Armstrong: And flesh requires a history and so the whole evolutionary history of life on the planet. It’s weird. It bends our whole notion of how we tend to think of space and time in purely linear ways. In this sense it’s like—the whole evolutionary history of the universe—it still manifests, on the one hand, God’s creative wisdom (there is still glory that is going on in the emergence of physical laws and life), but it is also the case that this is all almost like a shadow being cast backwards and forwards from a vertically, hierarchically superior kind of thing. …There are consequences for how we talk about flesh versus spirit if we’re thinking from within that more alterist framework where the goodness of life in the body as we experience it is really good, but it is bifurcated at every moment with a simultaneous experience of diminution and fall that is actually best captured imaginatively. I’m a big lover of Jim Henson, and I loved the Dark Crystal growing up, and that movie is actually a really great representation of what the Christian tradition has historically said about human beings.
For several years, I’ve come back regularly to an effort at summarizing the whole story of the Bible within as few words as possible. Here’s a recent attempt. Is it making sense?
God said, “Let there be light.” A few days later, God said, “Let there be heavenly bodies to guide an ageless dance between the great light of day and the many beautiful lights of night over which I delight to sing.”
Finally, God said to humanity, “Here is a place for you in the midst of my growing household so that you who carry my image can learn to show me fully to all that share life with me. Enjoy this home and care for it, my children, but be warned that refusal of this place in my household will lead to your death.”
But humanity said to God, “We are mature already, and we are ready now to be like you.”
God replied, “No, my children. To join with you fully is my purpose, but that step in the dance is not yet reached. Because of your disordered desire, you will need to mature within the realm of death where your own will cannot forever take you away from my life. This restriction of time by the contingency of death will limit your wanderings as you each mature amid the confusion and suffering of your misdirected loves. I will be with you, and you can still mature fully to show your divine image as my human family to all of my creation. Even from the foundation of this realm of death in which you must be entombed, my eternal Son will participate fully in your suffering, and a woman among you will bear fruit. She will be a human who prepares and agrees, even within the realm of death, to carry my perfect image as my eternal Son. Through her acceptance of her own humanity, this woman will fulfill my intent for all humanity as a way for me to join with my creation. With this union of her child’s life and the Life shared by me and my eternal Son as our gift to all creation, everything that we have made will be restored in the life of this woman’s child.”
And humanity slowly reply, “Remember us, O Lord, in your kingdom.”
Some tools should hold up even with a lifetime’s tasks. My shovel might. Its forged blade and all steel handle worked with the ground and my father and my brothers to burry my mother. Planting flowers just now, its turning of the earth recalled the place of her rest so that my shovel held that place with this and my mother to these flowers.
To wield willingly ever works wonders. In Latinate language: labor dignifies. Glory blooms with flowers from ground where we once bent, shoveling soil for seed and sprout. Why am I winding words this way? In days when all daily bread was toiling won, would any have written such lines after planting only a few flowers from a friend? But many gardeners sang, and a few rhymed. And would not most past planters have moved earth with stout blade to burry mother (and even every second child)?
Surely their spades, too, turned up common ground, revealing a shared life beneath each light of parent, child, bloom.
In the cosmology of David Bentley Hart, the greatest heroes are holy fools while the most bitter enemy is the secular nation state. (Note that this category of hero is steady and true of all earthly history, while the enemy is unstable and forever reconfiguring.) I’ll seek to elucidate each of these claims about Hart quickly which will also leave us in a good place from which to survey all of this current earthly story from start to finish.
I’ve long thought of Hart as a man inspired by the tradition of the wise fool. His most recent video chat appearance further confirmed this fairly obvious hunch. As Hart rambled delightfully on with religion scholar and Eastern Christian theologian David Armstrong at Perennial Digression, Hart spoke of this tradition (in its Taoist form) at several points:
There is a distressing absence of magical divine monkeys in the Western novel. …What I love about [Journey to the West] in general is that it is equally irreverent to all three of the major Chinese traditions at once. Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are all treated with remarkably cavalier coarseness. I say that as someone who loves all three of those traditions at their purest. What I like is that Chinese …sense of whimsy in which piety and absolute impiety become indistinguishable from one another at times. …I think of Gorilla [a character in Hart’s The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla] as …an exemplar of crazy wisdom—that tradition in Taoism of the mad monk.
Hart has admired a similar spirit in the mothers and fathers of the desert (within the closing paragraphs of Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies). Of course Hart (as Eastern Orthodox himself and a lover of several Russian theologians) would also be familiar with the revered tradition of the holy fool within the Eastern churches (and the Slavs in particular where it has a long history in the church as well as politics, literature and cinema) as well as the many other parallels in human cultures—with the likes of Ezekiel baking bread over a fire made of human dung, Diogenes of Sinope, the court jester, the troubadour and the mendicant friars (not, of course, that I equate all of these by listing them as comparable). It is no accident that John Saxbee said in his review of Hart’s Roland in Moonlight that it is a book where “Don Quixote meets The Wind in the Willows” (Church Times on 25 June 2021). Certain versions of this ideal are, of course, famously and indiscriminately popular. I recall seeing the Man of La Mancha during the 1998 season of Canada’s Stratford Festival with a group of young college friends. We walked the streets of Stratford for days afterward—arm in arm—singing “The Impossible Dream” at the maximum output that we could produce from ill-trained diaphragms and vocal cords.
To fight the unbeatable foe To bear with unbearable sorrow And to run where the brave dare not go To right the unrightable wrong …To fight for the right Without question or pause To be willing to march, march into hell For that heavenly cause
The whimsy of which Hart speaks in the Taoist tradition of the mad monk shares something of this or so my friends and I liked to hope at least. We called our little band of college fellows the Dúnedain and even practiced communism together for one summer (opening a single bank account between the crew of us into which we all deposited the paychecks from our various summer jobs). There is, of course, also a dark and abusive side to this ideal as can be seen in the figures of Rasputin or Sun Myung Moon and exemplified in various ways in the two very different books titled Crazy for God by Christopher Edwards (in 1979) and Frank Schaeffer (in 2007). That there is serious didactic and theological fruit from this tradition is, however, incontrovertible as can be found in the book Fools for Christ by Jaroslav Pelikan.
To be clear, Hart has never acted remotely like a mad monk or holy fool himself or made any such heady claims or insinuations. While Hart has a humor almost as scathing as that of Martin Luther, Hart is, at the end of the day, a modest and straightforward wit. (If you don’t accept this claim to Hart’s modesty, read Roland and Moonlight and then contact me about having a beer or two together afterward.) While neither he nor I are saying that Hart is himself fool enough to claim or tread the road of a holy fool, it is clear that Hart admires a wide spectrum of audaciously mad monks from the pages of history and literature.
If Hart’s greatest hero, then, is the mad monk, what might we say is the great enemy within Hart’s thought and writing? I propose that Hart’s greatest enemy is the secular nation state that gave rise to modernity along with the nation state’s most powerful contemporary manifestation—the multinational corporation.
The basic structures of the nation state are so ubiquitous and revered in our world that none of us can fully get the concept into our mind’s eye. However, there is a wide consensus among historians that one of the most basic developments at the end of Christendom and the rise of modernity is the invention of the nation state. To try to describe the nation state would sound to any modern American like describing the way in which apples always fall downward. It is more helpful to start by listing the entities that were replaced by the modern nation state: a host of guilds (including the student or teacher guilds of universities), village commons, empires, kingdoms, townships, manors, church parishes, monasteries, and the papacy. All of these ancient and layered structures of Christendom (along with many more such layers that could be named) were radically and suddenly displaced by the single and undisputed secular power of the modern nation state, and this replacement was widely celebrated as liberation from centuries of tyranny. These older and layered structures of human societies, moreover, were not just a part of Christendom but were an aspect of all pre-modern human cultures. All humans who lived before 1618 and the start of the Thirty Years’ War, existed in a kind of suspension upon a web of meanings and powers that ran between the chief, the shaman, kinship ties, the matriarchy or sisterhood, the guild, etc. Of course, such a development in the human story did not take place overnight, and the remnants of the old ways are not entirely effaced from the planet. In his stories of Port William, Wendell Berry calls this network of belonging and mutual help “the membership.” However, Berry’s whole life has, of course, been dedicated to documenting how the membership has died.
What took place with this seismic shift within human history is the identification of state authority with strictly secular, scientific and technical solutions that can have nothing to do with private affections (such as faith in God or even with the bonds of deep relationship, comradeship, or kinship). With the one sovereign arbiter of impartial secular power, laws can no longer be written and maintained by multiple types of legitimate authorities who all sought to fit their laws to “the way things are” (i.e. to the realities of how creation—in its webbed splendor—must move together in a dance of lives who face mutual dependence on every side). Instead, the laws of today can only be made by one impersonal power, and all laws are now tools for shaping, improving and controlling humanity and our world.
This sad step on the human journey is also the invention of modern religion as nothing more than a reflection of and a prop to the one true parentage of the nation state. While Enlightenment science promoted a focused methodology that systematically examined physical causes, it was the nation state that propelled this vision of a machine world and enabled us to quickly reduce everything around us to nothing but moving and lifeless parts that should be manipulated toward whatever calculated outcome will best serve our goals. This vision renders God pointless and leaves religion with no place to stand. However, the nation state still provides neutral protection to the various religious communities that can cooperate with the state and offer appealing psychological help to their adherents. Religion went from being a universal human virtue (singing sacred songs and handing off local habits across generations) to being just one out of a set of contending ideologies that must compete for adherents on whatever ground the modern secular sate might allow. In this contemporary context, religions have long looked like nothing more than a petty collection of factions fighting over arcane points of history or doctrine. (Some books about this invention of the “modern religion” are Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brent Nongbri or The Meaning and End of Religion by Wilfred Cantwell Smith or Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities by Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyar.)
What is replaced with the rise of the secular nation state, then, is the whole range of particular places (not only geographical but also overlapping social spaces) where all of the arts lived as schools and traditions of skill and craft in service of various human ways of live. (These fine arts have all been relocated into museums and performance halls—often funded primarily by the nation state and corporations.) Lost also are: local kinship structures of people living close to the earth that sustains them, oral cultures and sacred scripts learned by heart through song and chant and understood first as aids to wisdom and vision rather than as tools to deploy in the defense of abstract doctrines or competing truth claims. (More on some of this from me here.)
Clearly, this is only a glance at the significance of the secular nation state in terms of what it replaced. What it has enabled is a massive accumulation of capital and technical resources. While many of these resources are obviously great goods that have helped to sustain human life, they are also the same engine that has enable an unprecedented and systematic destruction of human life in the name of various kinds of progress (both under totalitarian fascist states and communist states) as well as practices such as Down syndrome screening or abortion as a large-scale form of birth control. While clearly upholding communism as a Christian ideal (as practiced within most ancient monastic communities for example), Hart is deeply critical of its statist forms. Of Marx himself, Hart says that his early agrarian romanticism contains much to admire but that, in the end, Marx became the most terrible of arch-capitalists and wanted to turn the entire world into one totalizing factory.
In assessing the fruits of the modern nation state, Hart has pointed to the staggering death rates under Hitler, Stalin and Moa. China’s single child policy is another example of the systematic destruction and control of human life that so easily shows up under the totalizing tendencies of secular nation states. Hart makes it clear that the wanton destructiveness of the secular nation state and it’s inheritors (multi-national corporations) continues in ways that leave us all culpable as well as directly within the path of destruction. Hart’s picture both of all human history and of our own current moment could not be any more bleak (from the same July 9 interview with David Armstrong linked above):
The fact is that we are in a Kali Yuga aren’t we? Putting aside all mythological construals of that, human beings generally are aware, in a two fold sense, that there is an urgency to this moment. One is quite a personal one. We’re all going to die, and our deaths are not that far off. And that will be an encounter with the ultimate horizon of all things. But also, in any given age, you have reasons to regret and see that, as the world changes, it changes toward—as much as you might believe in progress—you also see that it is a constant story of loss. Now we have arrived at a moment in the post-industrial age in which we are literally killing the world and nothing less than that. …We are poisoning the very foundations of organic life. …We are in a Kali Yuga. We are killing the world, and I don’t think there is going to be a miraculous intervention to stop us from doing it. So it may be that we are right now experiencing the judgement for iniquity and entering into the final moments. I don’t think it’s going to take nearly as long as Indian tradition suggests.
Earlier in this interview, Hart makes it clear that he does not think that God will intervene to forestall this impending self-destruction. At the same time, Hart says that God certainly could intervene and that it would be foolish to rule out such a thing categorically. In the end, however, this sense of impending self-destruction makes sense to me as well, as I write about in this short story (in which I also give it a Christian utopian turn).
However, Hart does not advocate anything like resignation. He points out that the teachings of Jesus Christ are relentlessly practical and political in the face of suffering and oppression (such as how to avoid getting dragged to court by powerful creditors and stripped of all your means for survival). Hart says that there is no ideal form of political action in the modern world because all of it serves the ends of the secular nation state. However, he nonetheless insists that we must take a stand with the best options that we have in the short term, and he identifies these as democratic socialism. Hart goes on to say that, in the long term, any options that might appear outside of the nation state should be our ultimate objective, and he suggests that these would look something like the ideas of Christian distributism (including layers of stateless authority with the reinvention of guild-like structures and other layered and organic human collectives or solidarities).
Not only does Hart advocate political action in the face of individual and planetary death, but he recommends that we never give up championing, collecting and reassembling all that is good, true and beautiful from all of the ancient religions of the world. Hart defends the Christian faith explicitly but also insists that everything truly human should be cherished as it is all now cheapened and at risk now in the face of the Christian heresy of modernity and ideological progress that continues to sweep the globe. While saying repeatedly that there is no past golden age and that what has gone before is never recoverable in any case, Hart also says that we should cherish and reassemble (in new ways) everything that is beautiful and true from our all of our human past. In this regard, he sounds a lot like Origen as he says that “out of the spoils that the children of Israel took from the Egyptians came the contents of the Holy of Holies, the ark with its cover, and the Cherubim, and the mercy-seat, and the golden pot wherein was treasured up the manna, the angels’ bread [so that] these things were made from the best of the Egyptian gold” (The Philocalia 13.1-2).
What Hart advocates is a cherishing of everything good from all the world cultures that now face extinction before the ravages of the secular nation state and the mechanistic vision of the world that it fosters. While Origen had all the pagan riches of the Hellenistic world in view, Hart has all the riches of every ancient human culture on the planet in view. Within the dialogs of Roland in Moonlight, Hart confides his “unwillingness to relinquish any dimension of anything that I find appealing or admirable… or beautiful” (326), and he draws this out even more fully in his July 7 review of Peter Sloterdijk’s After God:
The configurations of the old Christian order are irrecoverable now, and in many ways that is for the best. But the possibilities of another, perhaps radically different Christian social vision remain to be explored and cultivated. Chastened by all that has been learned from the failures of the past, disencumbered of both nostalgia and resentment, eager to gather up all the most useful and beautiful and ennobling fragments of the ruined edifice of the old Christendom so as to integrate them into better patterns, Christians might yet be able to imagine an altogether different social and cultural synthesis. Christian thought can always return to the apocalyptic novum of the event of the Gospel in its first beginning and, drawing renewed vigor from that inexhaustible source, imagine new expressions of the love it is supposed to proclaim to the world, and new ways beyond the impasses of the present.
The ultimate result, if Christians can free themselves from the myth of a lost golden age, may be something wilder and stranger than we can at present conceive, at once more primitive and more sophisticated, more anarchic in some ways and more orderly in others. Whether such a thing is possible or not, however, it is necessary to grasp that where we now find ourselves is not a fixed destiny. It becomes one only if we are unwilling to distinguish the opulent but often decadent grandeur of Christendom from the true Christian glory of which it fell so far short. The predicaments of the present are every bit as formidable as Sloterdijk’s diagnosis suggests, and our need for a global sphere of solidarity that can truly shelter the life of the whole is every bit as urgent as he claims. But it is also true that we are not actually fated to live ‘after God,’ or to seek our shelter only in the aftermath of God’s departure. In fact, of all the futures we might imagine, that might prove to be the most impossible of all.
Clearly, there is a deep Christian motivation to Hart’s passionate defense of all that is admirable and now broken and increasingly lost in the modern world. He has often quipped in recent interviews that if he had to choose again to move into the most beautiful religious tradition that he could fine, he would be a Sikh (although one who retained his devotion to Jesus Christ). Hart is convinced that Christianity has betrayed itself (over centuries of unholy alliances with worldly power) and has finally unleashed an ideological devotion to progress upon the world that masks the destruction that it is fast bringing to the all human cultures and to the entire planet. All aspects of modernity are distortions of truths that modernity has borrowed from the Christian gospel and twisted into powerful lies. At such a juncture, Hart often points to the the apocalyptic thrust of Christ’s gospel and suggests that we should not hold too tightly to churchly institutions. We should instead look to Christ and the breaking in of a kingdom from outside our current story, a kingdom that destroys false powers although they might be strong enough to poison our entire planet or leave us to die upon a cross. This is a kingdom capable of remembering all that has ever been faithful and lovely as well as of giving it a home, even if this home is only the bright and suffering heart of a fool. After all, it is from just such hearts that the very best of earthly kingdoms are always made.
I should conclude, but I promised a recap of all earthly history. Hart follows Origen, Maximus and many patristic Christian writers in saying that time as we experience it now is a reduction from the eternal life of God within which true creation takes place. We have fallen from outside of time as we know it, and all of cosmic history as we can investigate it with our five senses is subjected to this fall. In this context, then, all of human history is bleak from start to finish within Hart’s writings. He describes Mary’s yes to God and Christ’s incarnate human life as the in-breaking of God’s life but also as the perfect seal of God’s continued participation with all life, even to the point of the cross and descent into death. Our fall did not uncreate us but only left us in a contingent state of resistance to God’s creative work, a state that does not ultimately separate us from God who remains the only ground of all that is alive and beautiful within our fallen and suffering cosmos. All of fallen history, then, is both a place of confusion and loss while also still a powerful witness to a goodness from which it has fallen and to which it will return after time (as we know it now) has come to an end. And for Hart, evidently, a few mad monks can see up to and even outside of this end better than most of us.
From Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric D. Perl:
It is not the contemplative inward turn but rather the externality of sense that separates the self, as subject, from all else, as external object.
…Intellection, then, is the apprehension of being, as a whole, in a complex but unified vision, and being itself is not a static series of lifeless forms but a communion of living intelligences.
…Intellect, or intellection, is thus genuinely analogous to vision, as a bringing together of subject and object. In sense vision, the subject “reaches out,” extends its gaze toward the object, and the object is taken into the subject’s awareness. Sense perception, as a mode of consciousness, is a partial overcoming of the separation between subject and object, self and reality. In intellectual vision or intuition, this is perfected, for there is no externality or “distance” between the self and reality, and so they are one.
…Intellect, therefore, is perfect consciousness in that it is the knowledge of being as its own content and therefore as itself. As such it is not an object fixed up above in metaphysical space but an activity that we ourselves, as consciousness, can be.
…The self, at the level of Intellect, is Intellect, which means that it is all things. Hence the ascent to Intellect is also an inward turn of consciousness, whereby we encounter reality not, as by sense, external to the self, but as the content of thought and thus within the self.
…Discursive reason, then, apprehends the same content as intellection, but in greater multiplicity. As the unfolded representation of intellection in soul, discursive reason functions as a mean between the unity of the forms in Intellect and the still greater dispersion at the level of sense.
…Intellect and sense, therefore, as modes of cognition, are not apprehensions of different “worlds” or sets of objects, but are more and less unified apprehensions of being, the only object of all cognition. The sensible cosmos as a whole is the sensuous apprehension of being, being as apprehended, most multiply, by sense, and the intelligible cosmos is the same content as apprehended, most unitarily, by intellectual intuition. The sensible and the intelligible are not two worlds, but rather the same reality, the manifestation of the One, apprehended in differing degrees of unity. The ascent to intellection is thus not a passage from one set of objects to another, but a gathering of the content of consciousness into greater unity.
…Plotinus summarizes this account of Intellect by saying that it is “as if there was one quality which held and kept intact all the qualities in itself, of sweetness along with fragrance, and was at once the quality of wine and the characters of all tastes, the sights of colours and all the awarenesses of touch, and all that hearings hear, all tunes and every rhythm.” This strikingly sensuous description of intelligible reality drives home the point that intellectual experience is far more rich, not less, than sense experience, because it apprehends in concentrated unity, although not without distinction, all the same content that sense apprehends in extended, “diluted” multiplicity.
Today is the Feast of All Saints for Orthodox Christians. (Some of my funny Orthodox friends like to joke that last night was Orthodox Halloween.) One of the primary hymns for this feast (the kontakion, sung repeatedly in services this morning) starts out with these lines: “The universe offers the God-bearing martyrs as the first fruits of creation to You, O Lord and Creator.”
What does it mean for the universe to offer something to God? And what does it mean for the first fruits of creation to be the God-bearing martyrs?
This hymn preserves an understanding of the universe that we see in one of the first Christian martyrs, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote a famous series of letters on his journey to Rome to die. Along the way to his final destination, Saint Ignatius wrote a letter to the church in Rome saying, “When I shall have arrived there, I shall be a human being [ekei paragenomenos anthrōpos esomai]. Suffer me to follow the example of the passion of my God” (Letter to the Romans 6). This translation is as cited by Fr. John Behr in “From Adam to Christ: From Male and Female to Being Human” in The Wheel, 2018. In this same article, Fr. John Behr says of this passage that, as Ignatius approaches Rome, he clearly thinks of himself as “not yet born, not yet living, not yet human; only by his martyrdom, in imitation of Christ, will he be born into life as a human being.” Where I lived last in York, PA, I once got to hear Fr. John Behr speak in person about St. Ignatius and his martyrdom. It was powerful to hear him speak of how Christ created the world from the cross, speaking the final words of God in the creation of the world and finishing chapter one of Genesis when He said from the cross, “It is finished.” Jesus Christ was the first human being, the first one to show us the perfect image of God given to Adam but immediately obscured by the human fall. St. Ignatius understood this and was eager to be created by his Savior, Jesus Christ, as a full and mature human being. To be fully shaped by Jesus Christ as a fellow image-bearer of God, St. Ignatius carried his own cross to the point of death in Rome where he was fully united to Christ in his own death.
To understand this hymn about the martyrs as the first fruits of creation, we must turn to another letter to the church in Rome, this one by the Apostle Paul (8.19-22): “For the earnest expectation of creation anxiously awaits the revelation of the sons of God. For creation was made subordinate to pointlessness, not willingly but because of the one who subordinated it, in the hope that creation itself will also be liberated from decay into the freedom of the glory of God’s children. For we know that all creation groans together and labors together in birth pangs, up to this moment.” (Translation by David Bentley Hart.) Here we have all of creation waiting for the children of God to be revealed in glory. All of creation is described as still in the process of being born into the true life of God that Jesus Christ enters into when He conquers death, the life that each martyr enters into as they join Christ. This is indeed a picture where “the universe offers” up to God “the martyrs as the first fruits of creation.” We are used to thinking of creation as happening in the past. However, in this hymn, as well as in the letters from Paul and Ignatius, creation his happening right now, happening as we join Christ in his creative work on the cross, declaring, “It is finished.”
Of course, this language comes from all over the holy scriptures. In 1 Corinthians 15:22-26, Paul writes: “For just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed all will be given life and each in the proper order: the Anointed as the firstfruits, thereafter those who are in the Anointed at his arrival, then the full completion, when he delivers the Kingdom to him who is God and Father, when he renders every Principality and every Authority and Power ineffectual. For he must reign till he puts all enemies under his feet. The last enemy rendered ineffectual is death.” (Translation by David Bentley Hart.) All of cosmic history, as we know it, is given over to death and the entire universe suffers with one voice; it “groans together and labors together in birth pangs” until it has given birth to the first human beings: Jesus Christ and his martyrs. These are “the first fruits of creation” as we sang this morning.
My own partial transcription from portions of this excellent conversation between David Bentley and Tony Golsby-Smith about Gregory of Nyssa:
[Gregory of Nyssa] is arguably the first metaphysician who in any significant way explored the metaphysics of divine infinity. …Infinity was ascribed to God …very rarely in Platonic tradition. The invite was not taken to be a positive attribute for many schools of thought until fairly late in the development of Hellenistic philosophy. He had is own anthropology. He had is own approach to an understanding of the nature of the human being, the nature of creatures as thoroughly dynamic expressions of being in relation to a God who is infinite. I don’t think that anyone before Gregory was as successful as he at arguing that the very things that for a more standard metaphysics would be seen as separating humanity from the divine—that is the mutably, the changeableness of human nature—Gregory was able to treat as the very terms of union with God. That is he had a very specific theology of the way in which human beings are related to God in union with God that was his rather creative use of a verse from Paul [Ph. 3:13] of eternal dynamic ascent into the divine. That our union with God, our eternal union with God, would be one also of eternal novelty, of epectasis [ἐπεκτεινόμενος], of being stretched out into an ever greater embrace that, by virtue of the divine infinity, is inexhaustible and by virtue of the inexhaustibly changing nature of the creature is nonetheless something in which we can participate. …All of this, in its own way, is quite original.
All sorts of things are called gods. Saints are called gods. John of Damascus and the other church fathers often speak of saints as gods because they don’t mean God in the sense of God most high. They just mean a divinized creature.
What does it mean to say [with the Nicene Creed established by Gregory and his fellow Cappadocians] that in Christ God has entered into immediate communion with humanity? What is humanity? How is it that God, by becoming one man, in another sense is present in all of humanity, pervades the entirety of human experience that is available to all of the spirit? This leads to Gregory of Nyssa coming up with all sorts of fascinating claims about what it is to be human, what it is to be truly human, how God created humanity form the vantage of eternity as apposed to the process of creation in time and how these two relate. Here he far surpassed his brother [Basil] and Gregory of Nazianzus in the range of speculative genius and also theological profundity. The picture of the human that emerges from it is one of a sort of radical coinherence, radical community, such that the human essence itself is one that is community before it is individuated in persons.
What he does with the Life of Moses is he turns this into a mystical treatise about he ascent of the soul into God’s infinity. And the other is his great commentary on the Song of Songs which …has all these odd premonitory hints of a kind of almost romantic vision of the soul as this infinite insatiable energy that is plunged by its error for the divine, striving—not tragically striving—but nonetheless moved by this insatiable hunger for the beauty of God into ever-deeper communion.
[Gregory of Nyssa] recognizes the animality, the physicality, the degree to which, especially for fallen humanity, [it is given] in preparation for the fall. He talks about preparing certain organs (among them, organs of procreation) to be appropriate to the life that we live in this mortal flesh now. …At the same time, he realizes that even in this condition—he’s always …recogniz[ing] this divine light, this divine music even in the human[‘s] most indigent and coarsely physical form.
In a sense, [Gregory of Nyssa] starts [the creation story] at the end. The creation of humanity starts—he does this wonderful thing where he takes the two different creation accounts, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and makes them, so to speak, two different creative horizons within God’s working—he beings with the human being as already glorified, already united to Christ, already in its totality, all human being together rejoicing in and divinized by the presence of God. From there—that’s the primordial creative act of God, the eternal already accomplished end—from there then unfolds, even from the conditions of sin, how does God create us in time—this being not just the end of the story, but its foundation, its beginning. Rather than starting from this sort of tragedy of a promising creature created in a limited landscape of possibilities, who makes a mess of things, condemns himself and his descendants, …that’s actually an interval in the story that is surpassed before the story even gets underway.
You are confronted first and foremost with this dizzying claim that humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God. That’s where the story begins.
I’m a great champion of the romantic movement—especially the English romantic—the great rebellion against the mechanization, and I have no problem with a full robust, red blooded, seemingly panentheistic [vision]. I think that this is another reason to read Gregory On the Making of Humanity and Basil in the Hexameron. …Now, there is a certain degree of the Platonic melancholy there, a certain distrust of matter. You just can’t get away from that in the fourth century, especially in a fallen world. …But they are not talking about a world in which dead matter is the fictile clay by which God creates a working order of mechanisms related to him only in terms of his power. It really is for [them] a vision of created as pervaded by the Spirit of God. It really is the πνεῦμα, the breath of God really does permeate, fill and enliven all things. Life is literally at once the eternal spirit of God but actually the breath of God in all things. It is perfectly healthy to see the romantic rebellion [as being] against the mechanized picture—either the dualistic or the materialist version—this picture of creation as nothing but a collection of organic machines and matter as something inherently dead which is brought to life simply as a mater of functional arrangement but that in itself [is dead]. For Gregory, everything is just the mirror of the divine nature. …In both Basil and Gregory, they both deny that there is even, in any meaningful, sense a material substrate. Their understanding of matter—I don’t know if you’d say that it’s Berkeleian, that’s a bit of an anachronism—but their understanding of matter or the material creation is that it exists as a coalescence of radiant forms [Greek phrase given here, 41:53], of pure spiritual forms. They don’t believe that there is any sort of inanimate, non-divine, non-illuminated, purely passive level of material existence. And this is something that [Gregory] shared with Basil.
The portion in this conversation above about the two nested horizons of God’s creative work provides some helpful language regarding the nature of the cosmos that we inhabit now (see three previous posts here, here and here for just a few other examples of material in my blog related to this). Gregory considers there to be a foundational work of creation outside of time (both the beginning and the end of this current world) in which there is a “humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning [that] was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God.” This fullness of humanity is Adam made in the perfect image of God’s eternal son. This undifferentiated humanity falls at the moment of its creation (as Maximus the confessor puts it in three places) and Jesus Christ is therefore the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the cosmos” (Revelation 13:8) and the second Adam to whom all of humanity must remain united in order for the image of God to be preserved. Within fallen time, this image of God is now being differentiated as a kind of secondary work of creation—God’s joining with us in sin and death to nonetheless participate fully with even the life of fallen creation and to accomplish the end of God’s primary creative work. Later in the conversation, David summarizes Gregory as saying that, from our current perspective, creation has not yet taken place. From God’s eternal perspective, it can be clearly inferred as well, it has already taken place.
This entire interview is well worth listening to, and I hope the entire thing is transcribed. Two more are planned focussing on other writings of Gregory. This first interview touches on many other topics such as: Who were all of the Cappadocian saints and what is the nature of the Christian orthodoxy that they were critical in helping to establish? Why did Gregory advocate for the release of all slaves when no other Christian thinker (or likely any human thinker ever) had done so before in this way? Was Gregory a widower and what did Gregory say about marriage and monastic life? How does Gregory compare to Coleridge?