Posts tagged ‘angels’

August 26, 2018

Willis Run Soliloquy

I caress each stone, brick, root, turtle, and grocery bag that rests in my slow, shaded pools, and I taste each rock quarry dredging that muddies my current. I hold everything—from every side—within my moving waters, and I search out the interior scents and textures of all that touches me. Each moment, all my waters shimmer in a vivid curtain of eddies—from my source-springs to my mouth.

Every Spring, Great White Egrets and Black-crowned Night Herons nest beside me, bringing far-off photographers. Just upstream, my bedrock is dynamited weekly for limestone, carving a crater hundreds of feet below my water table. But all the tomorrows carry their worries without me, just like the dead who cover Prospect Hill. Only my angel remembers the millennia of life and landscapes that have shared in my song as it has played over my bedrock since it was first given a shape to hold me.

[Note: this is my try at something that I’ve assigned to some eighth grade students: “Students must write, memorize, and deliver a one minute soliloquy as Willis Run (a local stream that they will learn about and visit in person). Students will be given time and support to create a compelling and believable personality for Willis Run as they personify this stream and speak in its voice.”]

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April 22, 2018

in reality only the Deity is immaterial and incorporeal

Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (book II, chapter 3, “Concerning angels”) by Saint John of Damascus:

He is Himself the Maker and Creator of the angels: for He brought them out of nothing into being and created them after His own image, an incorporeal race, a sort of spirit or immaterial fire: in the words of the divine David, He maketh His angels spirits, and His ministers a flame of fire: and He has described their lightness and the ardour, and heat, and keenness and sharpness with which they hunger for God and serve Him, and how they are borne to the regions above and are quite delivered from all material thought.

An angel, then, is an intelligent essence, in perpetual motion, with free-will, incorporeal, ministering to God, having obtained by grace an immortal nature: and the Creator alone knows the form and limitation of its essence. But all that we can understand is, that it is incorporeal and immaterial. For all that is compared with God Who alone is incomparable, we find to be dense and material. For in reality only the Deity is immaterial and incorporeal.

The angel’s nature then is rational, and intelligent, and endowed with free-will, changeable in will, or fickle. For all that is created is changeable, and only that which is un-created is unchangeable. Also all that is rational is endowed with free-will. As it is, then, rational and intelligent, it is endowed with free-will: and as it is created, it is changeable, having power either to abide or progress in goodness, or to turn towards evil.

It is not susceptible of repentance because it is incorporeal. For it is owing to the weakness of his body that man comes to have repentance.

It is immortal, not by natures but by grace. For all that has had beginning comes also to its natural end. But God alone is eternal, or rather, He is above the Eternal: for He, the Creator of times, is not under the dominion of time, but above time.

They are secondary intelligent lights derived from that first light which is without beginning, for they have the power of illumination; they have no need of tongue or hearing, but without uttering words they communicate to each other their own thoughts and counsels.

Through the Word, therefore, all the angels were created, and through the sanctification by the Holy Spirit were they brought to perfection, sharing each in proportion to his worth and rank in brightness and grace.

They are circumscribed: for when they are in the Heaven they are not on the earth: and when they are sent by God down to the earth they do not remain in the Heaven. They are not hemmed in by walls and doors, and bars and seals, for they are quite unlimited. Unlimited, I repeat, for it is not as they really are that they reveal themselves to the worthy men to whom God wishes them to appear, but in a changed form which the beholders are capable of seeing. For that alone is naturally and strictly unlimited which is un-created. For every created thing is limited by God Who created it.

Further, apart from their essence they receive the sanctification from the Spirit: through the divine grace they prophesy: they have no need of marriage for they are immortal.

Seeing that they are minds they are in mental places, and are not circumscribed after the fashion of a body. For they have not a bodily form by nature, nor are they tended in three dimensions. But to whatever post they may be assigned, there they are present after the manner of a mind and energise, and cannot be present and energise in various places at the same time.

Whether they are equals in essence or differ from one another we know not. God, their Creator, Who knoweth all things, alone knoweth. But they differ from each other in brightness and position, whether it is that their position is dependent on their brightness, or their brightness on their position: and they impart brightness to one another, because they excel one another in rank and nature. And clearly the higher share their brightness and knowledge with the lower.

They are mighty and prompt to fulfil the will of the Deity, and their nature is endowed with such celerity that wherever the Divine glance bids them there they are straightway found. They are the guardians of the divisions of the earth: they are set over nations and regions, allotted to them by their Creator: they govern all our affairs and bring us succour. And the reason surely is because they are set over us by the divine will and command and are ever in the vicinity of God.

With difficulty they are moved to evil, yet they are not absolutely immoveable: but now they are altogether immoveable, not by nature but by grace and by their nearness to the Only Good.

They behold God according to their capacity, and this is their food.

They are above us for they are incorporeal, and are free of all bodily passion, yet are not passionless: for the Deity alone is passionless.

They take different forms at the bidding of their Master, God, and thus reveal themselves to men and unveil the divine mysteries to them.

They have Heaven for their dwelling-place, and have one duty, to sing God’s praise and carry out His divine will.

Moreover, as that most holy, and sacred, and gifted theologian, Dionysius the Areopagite says, All theology, that is to say, the holy Scripture, has nine different names for the heavenly essences. These essences that divine master in sacred things divides into three groups, each containing three. And the first group, he says, consists of those who are in God’s presence and are said to be directly and immediately one with Him, viz., the Seraphim with their six wings, the many-eyed Cherubim and those that sit in the holiest thrones. The second group is that of the Dominions, and the Powers, and the Authorities; and the third, and last, is that of the Rulers and Archangels and Angels

Some, indeed, like Gregory the Theologian, say that these were before the creation of other things. He thinks that the angelic and heavenly powers were first and that thought was their function. Others, again, hold that they were created after the first heaven was made. But all are agreed that it was before the foundation of man. For myself, I am in harmony with the theologian. For it was fitting that the mental essence should be the first created, and then that which can be perceived, and finally man himself, in whose being both parts are united.

But those who say that the angels are creators of any kind of essence whatever are the mouth of their father, the devil. For since they are created things they are not creators. But He Who creates and provides for and maintains all things is God, Who alone is uncreate and is praised and glorified in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

January 13, 2018

Response to Walter Wink’s book Naming the Powers

Father Stephen Freeman recommends Walter Wink’s book Naming the Powers:

A book worth looking at viz. the powers is Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers. As successive volumes of this came out, I thought it got a bit strange, but I remember this volume as very much worth the read.

I just read Wink’s book, found it eminently worthwhile, and have shared selections here.

In addition, below are my brief responses to Wink’s book. This book recommendation from Father Stephen comes in the comments to his blog post “When Chaos Ruled the World – Part I” (January 9, 2018).

Several comments compared points made by David Bentley Hart in his recent essay, “Everything you know about the Gospel of Paul is likely wrong.” Hart and Freeman do say some similar things. From Hart, for example:

The essence of Paul’s theology is something far stranger, and unfolds on a far vaster scale. For Paul, the present world-age is rapidly passing, while another world-age differing from the former in every dimension – heavenly or terrestrial, spiritual or physical – is already dawning. The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph. For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God. But Christ has conquered them all.

In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession.

From Freeman, for example:

But in the Eastern Church, the Baptism of Christ takes up these Old Testament references of struggle with the watery chaos. Christ’s entry into the waters is understood as a foreshadowing of His entrance into Hades. It is a defeat of the hostile powers. The same theme runs throughout the sacrament of Baptism itself. The destruction of the demons is easily the strongest theme within that service. …It is not a hymn of payment, or punishment, but of going into the strongman’s kingdom, binding him and setting free those who are held captive. The heads of the dragons are crushed, the heads of leviathan are broken in pieces, Rahab has been cut apart.

Within the comments, Freeman acknowledges some common ground with Hart:

Hart is close on in his description, but his article is far too short. “Archons” (Ages) and the like (principalities, powers, etc.) are various forms of spiritual beings – though we shouldn’t necessarily equate them exactly with angels. It’s more complex than that. The gnostics use some of the same terms, but do not seem to have in mind the same things as described in St. Paul.

…It’s a very complex set of understandings – which makes it so easy for pseudo-scholars to manipulate for various agendas rather than trying to articulate what is, in fact, the case (with St. Paul, etc.). But I would agree with Hart, that what most people (i.e. our present Western understanding) see when they read St. Paul is, in fact, not what’s there.

In addition to my reading of Freeman and Hart as a recent convert to Orthodoxy (the tradition that both authors espouse), I personally have been teaching a medieval literature class (to middle school students) and reflecting on the nature of elves and monsters within medieval literature as well as the works of Tolkien, Lewis, and Macdonald. See here and here, for examples.

Within these contexts, I have again encountered the ideas of “the principalities and powers” of the Biblical authors.

Naming the Powers by Walter Wink was a very strong study of the terms involved. Wink starts with the texts and responds to the tendency of modern liberation theology to reduce “the powers” to the institutional, social, and legal structures of injustice. Wink also responds to other modern authors who have attempted to reduce the powers to “good” angelic beings carrying out the will of God.

In his own conclusions, Wink seeks to fully synthesize or reconcile ancient (mythic and spiritual) with modern (material or institutional/phycological/sociological) understandings. In his own conclusions from the texts, Wink is critical of both ancient and modern ideas or worldviews. Wink is critical of traditionalists (including the “orthodox church” specifically) for simply spiritualizing these “powers” as well as of moderns for reducing “the powers” to material or scientific categories. (Wink’s criticism of the Orthodox is ill-informed but in a very typical and understandable way.)

Read Wink’s more complete case for yourself. Here is a core sample:

What I propose is viewing the spiritual Powers not as separate heavenly or ethereal entities but as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power. I suggest that the “angels of nature” are the patterning of physical things-rocks, trees, plants, the whole God-glorifying, dancing, visible universe; that the “principalities and powers” are the inner or spiritual essence, or gestalt, of an institution or state or system; that the “demons” are the psychic or spiritual power emanated by organizations or individuals or subaspects of individuals whose energies are bent on overpowering others; that “gods” are the very real archetypal or ideological structures that determine or govern reality and its mirror, the human brain; that the mysterious “elements of the universe” (stoicheia cheia tou kosmou) are the invariances (formerly called “laws”) which, though often idolized by humans, conserve the self-consistency of each level of reality in its harmonious interrelationship with every other level and the Whole; and that “Satan” is the actual power that congeals around collective idolatry, injustice, or inhumanity, a power that increases or decreases according to the degree of collective refusal to choose higher values.

…These “Powers” do not, then, on this hypothesis, have a separate, spiritual existence. We encounter them primarily in reference to the material or “earthly” reality of which they are the innermost essence. The spiritual aspect of the Powers is not simply a “personification” of institutional qualities that would exist whether they were personified or not. On the contrary, the spirituality of an institution exists as a real aspect of the institution even when it is not perceived as such.

…It is far from the case, then, that human beings create their gods. The “spirits” of things emerge with the things themselves and are only subsequently divined as their inner essence. The gods, spirits, and demons are not mere personifications or hypostatizations. That is the language of reductionism; it means that these entities are not regarded as real, but only as poetic fictions or shorthand for speaking about realities the historian knows how to describe more precisely with his analytical tools. Personification means illusion. The Powers we are speaking about, on the contrary, are real. They work on us whether we acknowledge them or not. They do not depend on our belief for their efficacy. Humans cannot even lay claim to creating these Powers indirectly, by virtue of creating the structures…. To be sure, we do establish new structures and modify old ones. Insofar as we share in the creative process and bring new consciousness to it, we help create the spirituality of things. There is a reciprocity, so we could argue that it is as true to say that the gods create us as to say that we create the gods.

I agree with Wink that the ancient Christian understanding of these powers (and of the heavenly realm in totality) did not separate the physical and the spiritual realms but rather understood them to be radically and totally coterminous. Wink draws this critical insight out beautifully. However, in his synthesis of ancient and modern categories of thought, Wink does not fully account for the continuity and distinctness of the various “powers” as creatures made by God. We must recognize that God creates the “inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power” and that these “inner realities” can exist across time and in relation to multiple physical or “outer realities.” Wink himself gives an excellent example of this without seeming to concede the full implications of his example:

The very demons themselves, so long regarded as baleful spirits in the air, are pictured by the Gospels as abhorring decorporealization. When Jesus orders the “Legion” of demons out of the Gerasene demoniac, they plead to be allowed to possess a nearby herd of swine (Mark 5:12). The historicity of the conception is guaranteed regardless of the historicity of the event. The unclean spirit can find no rest without a physical body in which to reside (Luke 11:24-26). The sense is clear: demons can become manifest only through concretion in material reality. They are, in short, the name given that real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities, and nations.

I fully appreciate the point about the “demons themselves … abhorring decorporealization,” but Wink seems to miss that it is the same demons inhabiting a single human at one moment and multiple pigs at the next. The demons are more than the “the psychic or spiritual power emanated” by a man (or a herd of pigs) “whose energies are bent on overpowering others.” These demons are intimately bound up with these destructive qualities in the man and the pigs, but they are also independent of both the man and the pigs in some fundamental way. Wink may account for this by not connecting all “powers” and interior realities to specific outward realities, but I did not notice him making this case.

Having read Wink, it seems to me most likely that God made more specific internal and spiritual realities than there are specific material and external realities. Every single person, nation, city, star, and blade of grass has its own unique angel that participates fully with the outer reality of that particular person or blade of grass (God and His spiritual servants being outside of time, the shortness of life for blades of grass is not a major issue here), but there are also angels (fallen, faithful, or just ignorant and confused) who are not directly connected to specific material things and who move among all of the many external/material realities that align with their own ways of being. Any person or institution manifesting hate and pride can accommodate Satan or some other such devils, for example.

These quibbles not withstanding, I am very grateful to Wink for his clear and thoughtful exposition of “the powers” in the Bible. My list of “things learned” from his book would be long indeed! Please see these excerpts and buy his book to read in full. Here are some of the areas in which I took away clarified and enriched understandings:

  • All New Testament authors were heavily invested in sophisticated ideas and complex vocabularies regarding hierarchical spiritual powers (that were typically coterminous with earthly and material powers).
  • Heaven is not a remote realm that is separate from earth in terms of space. Rather, heaven is the realm where the spiritual and inner qualities or truths of all things within the created world are seen and manifest.
  • Spiritual realities are not best understood as simply “immaterial” but in positive categories such as more fundamental, hidden, or interior.
  • Biblical authors had sophisticated ideas of angels connected to each nation of the earth.
  • Biblical authors understood heaven, earth, and each human person in terms of macrocosm and microcosm. They understood there to be a deep reciprocity, connection, or correspondence between different realms and on different scales. Each human person is a temple that in some sense reflects all of the material cosmos which is itself a temple that reflects the heavenly throne room of God.
  • In prayer and in faithful service to God, the church preaches to the angelic powers, teaching and changing realities within their realm. In connection to this, the book includes some specific and meaningful consideration of the divine liturgy in Revelation.
January 13, 2018

every blade of grass, every rock crystal, acorn, and ovum has its “messenger” (angelos)

Selections from Naming the Powers by Walter Wink (see my own thoughts here):

The language of power pervades the whole New Testament. No New Testament book is without the language of power. The phrase archai kai exousiai (“principalities and powers”) is but one of many paired expressions for power and should not be singled out as of unique significance. Other such pairs are:

  • Rulers (archontes) and great men (Matt. 20:25)
  • Those who supposedly rule (hoi dokountes archein) and great men (Mark 10:42)
  • Kings (basileis) and those in authority (hoi exousiazontes) (Luke 22:25)
  • Chief priests (archiereis) and rulers (archontes) (Luke 24:20)
  • Authorities (archonten) and Pharisees (John 7:48)
  • Rulers (archontes) and elders (Acts 4:8)
  • Kings and rulers (archontes) (Acts 4:26)
  • Angels and principalities (archai) (Rom. 8:38)
  • Power (dynamei) and name (onomati) (Acts 4:7)
  • Power (dynamin) and wisdom (sophian) (1 Cor. 1:24)
  • Power (dynamin) and authority (exousian) (Luke 9:1; Rev. 17:13)
  • Authority (exousias) and commission (epitropes) (Acts 26:12)
  • Authority (exousia) and power (dynamei) (Luke 4:36)

Half of these (7) are found in the Gospels, 4 in Acts, and only 2 in Paul.

…Not only do expressions for power tend to be paired, they also attract each other into series or strings, as if power were so diffuse and impalpable a phenomenon that words must be heaped up in clusters in order to catch a sense of its complexity. One need only scan this list of phrases to get a sense of their variety and frequency:

  • Chief priests, captains, elders (Luke 22:52)
  • Chief priests, rulers (archontas), people (Luke 23:13)
  • Rulers (archontas), elders, scribes (Acts 4:5)
  • Synagogues, rulers (archas), and authorities (exousias) (Luke 12:11)
  • Death, life, angels, principalities (archai), present, future, powers (dynameis), height, depth, any other creature (Rom. 8:38)
  • Rule (arches), authority (exousias), power (dynamebs), dominion (kyriotetos), iotetos), name (onomatos) (Eph. 1:21)
  • Principalities (archas), powers (exousias), (dynamebs), dominion (kyriotetos), iotetos), name (onomatos) (Eph. 1:21)
  • Principalities (archas), powers (exousias), world rulers (kosmokratoras), kratoras), spirits of wickedness (pneumatika tes ponerias) (Eph. 6:12)
  • Thrones (thronoi), dominions (kyriotetes), principalities (archai), authorities thorities (exousial) (Col. 1:16)
  • Angels, authorities (exousion), powers (dynameon) (1 Pet. 3:22)
  • Power (dynamin), throne (thronon), authority (exousian) (Rev. 13:2)
  • Salvation, power (dynamis), kingdom, authority (exousia) (Rev. 12:10)
  • Glory, majesty, dominion (kratos), authority (exousia) (Jude 25)

Of these strings, the first four decidedly consist of human agents, the last two run more to attributes of one who has power. The remainder appear to be at least heavenly, perhaps also earthly, powers; for now that question, which will remain one of the chief preoccupations of this study, must remain open.

…Chapter 2 headings: The Powers:

  • Arch and Archon
  • Exousia
  • Dynamis
  • Thronos
  • Kyriotes
  • Onoma
  • Angels
  • Fallen Angels, Evil Spirits, Demons

[In “The Disputed Passages” of chapter 3 (“The New Testament Evidence”), the author also includes careful treatment of “the seven references to the stoicheia (‘elements’) in the New Testament.” Appendix 4 includes a survey of stoicheia (‘elements’) within the writings of the early church fathers.]

…For the ancients, heaven and earth were a seamless robe, a single interacting and continuous reality. To read the literature on the subject, one would never have suspected that the spiritual Powers comprised only 15 percent of the uses of the term. We are fascinated with the supranatural forces the ancients described; they seem to have taken them for granted and to have been much more preoccupied with that more amorphous, intangible, indefinable something that makes it possible for a king to command subjects to voluntary death in war or for a priest to utter words that send a king to his knees. Perhaps they lacked the systematic precision of modem sociological analyses of power, but that does not mean they lacked experience of what our modem analyses describe or a vocabulary for designating it. And they may have been in touch with dimensions of power which our more materialistic point of view scarcely glimpses.

…The plurality of thrones around a central throne suggests the “sons of God” (bone elohim) of the heavenly council, but no further reference is made to them. No surviving documents allude to these thrones again prior to the New Testament. Those that have been cited by some scholars are all late.” But some kind of speculative ferment must have existed almost from the publication of Daniel, for what crops up in the Book of Revelation is a full-blown and mature picture of God’s throne surrounded by twenty-four thrones, on which were seated twenty-four elders with golden crowns (Rev. 4:4 [twice]; so also 4:2; 11:16; 20:4). We are given little data for deciphering the identity of these heavenly “elders”; by analogy they are “advice-givers” and possibly represent the heavenly council. But in this book they give no advice, only praise.

…This connection between the angels or “princes” of the nations and the “sons of God” is also reflected by Isaiah 41-46 and 48, where Yahweh, in a “divine lawsuit” (rib) before the heavenly council, addresses the pagan nations, calling them to hear his case. The real suit, however, is not with the nations as such but with their idol-gods. Since Israelite tradition had already long since identified the “sons of God” or “sons of gods” with the heavenly council, and the heavenly council with angels, it was perfectly natural and inevitable that early on these gods of the pagan nations would be understood as the guardian angels appointed over them. What we find in Daniel 10, the Jerusalem Targum, and the Dead Sea Scrolls had thus already had a long prehistory.

The notion of angels appointed over each nation, devoted to that nation’s well-being and responsible for its fate, represents a kind of systems-view of international politics under the aspect of God’s final sovereignty.

…We must not regard these angels of the nations as necessarily evil; they merely represent the interests of their own people, which would not evidently be served by Israel’s ascendancy over them.

…It may be that an awareness of the relation between the good will of the angel and the responsiveness of a people to preaching is what later led Father Peter Faber, a colleague of Ignatius Loyola, to pray to the angel of a region before entering it.’6

Origen interpreted Acts 16:9 in a similar way. When Paul saw in a vision a “man of Macedonia” beseeching him, “Come over and help us,” Origen understood this to be the angel of Macedonia appealing to Paul for help in bringing the people under its care into alignment with the purposes of God.’

…”The heavenlies,” in short, is that dimension of reality of which the believer becomes aware as a result of being “raised up” by God with Christ. It is a heightened awareness, the consciousness of a noumenal realm in which the final contest for the lordship of all reality is being waged. The “sons of disobedience” are “dead” to this reality.”‘ It is known only by It is a gift that cannot be achieved,”‘ a mystery that cannot be plumbed apart from divine illumination,”‘ a knowledge that cannot simply be added to existing knowledge but that requires an altogether new mind, indeed, a new humanity. 115

But it is not simply a state of rapture. It is an actual, new, epistemic standpoint which surpasses gnosis (Eph. 3:19), and the believer’s comprehension pertains not just to the things of God, but also to the reality, deceptions, and delusionary snares of evil. Against this they must be armed (6:10-20); thus armed, they are able to “expose” the “unfruitful works of darkness” (5:11) and make them become “visible” (5:13).

This is of utmost importance. The true dimensions of evil, according to the writer, are known only through revelation, however bad life may have seemed before. And the consequence of revelation, conversely, is not to rescue the believers from a world of evil but to open their eyes, to bring them “light” (Eph. 5:14), and thereby to enlist them in the struggle for liberation. Just as peasants liberated from the control of a military dictatorship are not freed from conflict but freed for conflict, the Christian is recruited into the ranks of God in the grace-ful struggle to bring the world to the truth (1:13) that the crucified and risen Christ is its principle of harmony and power (1:20-23). “The heavenlies” where the believer has already been established is thus a kind of “liberated zone,” in John Pairman Brown’s phrase,120 although with this caveat: those who are in this “liberated zone” are not at all free from the possibility of collusion with the old Powers or even of apostasy. But they are provided a space of relative freedom from determination by the Powers. Ta epourania is thus very similar to the phrase “the kingdom of God” as used in the Gospels, and subject to the same ambiguities.

…The most puzzling aspect of Eph. 3:10, however, is why-and how-the church is to preach to the Powers in the heavenlies. The image is similar to Revelation 1-3, where the one like a son of man commands John to tell the angels of the churches what needs to be done in their churches. We are not told why this communication is not made directly by Christ to the angels. Apparently humans are necessary as intermediaries to the angels: angels’ angels! But how this message is to be communicated to the Powers is not said, nor do any commentators remark on it.127 Rev. 12:11 speaks of Satan being conquered by the faith and testimony of the martyrs, but not of their addressing Satan. The same is true of the passage in Ignatius which speaks of “the powers (dynameis) of Satan” being destroyed by the frequent gatherings of the church to give thanks and glory to God; “his mischief is brought to nothing, by the concord of your faith. There is nothing better than peace, by which every war in heaven and on earth is abolished” (Eph. 13). In both cases the Powers are affected by what the church does on earth, but in neither case does the church address them.

Chapter 4. Toward an Interpretation

1. The language of power pervades the whole New Testament. Surveying all the data covered, it is amazing that this has been so consistently overlooked. On every page of the New Testament one fords the terminology of power. those incumbents, offices, structures, roles, institutions, ideologies, rituals, rules, agents, and spiritual influences by which power is established and exercised. The language and reality of power pervade the New Testament because power is one of the primary ways the world is organized and run. No human activity can be described without recourse to this language. Earlier scholarly preoccupation with personified aspects of power has diverted attention from the pervasiveness of this use of the language of power. Since the Book of Revelation fails to use the stereotypical phrases of the Pauline and Paulinist literature, some scholars have declared that it lacks interest in such matters altogether-a staggering claim, since no other writing in the New Testament burns with such intense political fury. When we broaden the issue to the language of power generally, however, quite a different picture of Revelation emerges. John the Seer uses thronos 45 times, onoma 36 times, exousia 20 times, dynamic 2 times, and archon I time, a veritable thesaurus of power terms. But with the sole exception of the latter (used of Christ in 1:5), John uses these terms not as names of spiritual powers (for which he prefers more surrealistic images, such as Dragon, Beast, frogs, locusts, etc.), but as names of political rulership (2:26; 17:12-13), the dominion of angels (14:18), delegated authority (9:3; 13:4, 5, 7, 12), and so forth. The fact is that no book in the whole Bible is so thoroughly preoccupied with evil powers and their defeat.

Another surprising finding of our study is that the synoptic Gospels use the terminology of power almost as frequently as does Paul, whose name is most often associated with the Powers. This fact has been overlooked looked simply because the Gospels tend to use the language of power of human or structural, rather than spiritual, entities. Paul for his part developed a quite unique manner of dealing with the determinants of human existence, substituting such quasi-hypostatized words as sin, law, flesh, and death for the terms more frequently encountered in Jewish apocalyptic: Satan, Azazel, Beliar, evil spirits, demons. In short, when we attend not merely to the terminology but the meaning field which is being denoted, Paul’s letters, like the rest of the New Testament, can be described as a theology of power.’

2. The language of power in the New Testament is extremely imprecise, precise, liquid, interchangeable, and unsystematic, yet

3. Despite all this imprecision and interchangeability, certain clear patterns of usage emerge. We found ourselves to be dealing not with analytically precise categories used consistently from one passage to another other but with terms that cluster and swarm around the reality they describe, scribe, as if by heaping up synonymous phrases and parallel constructions an intuitive sense of the reality described might emerge. So we discovered series, strings, and pairs of terms used with a kind of consistent indiscriminateness, and within this field of language, a genuine power-reality that comes to expression. However, this very promiscuity of language meant that

4. Because these terms are to a degree interchangeable, one or a pair or a series can be made to represent them all. Furthermore, an initial sifting of data suggested that

5. These Powers are both heavenly and earthly, divine and human, spiritual and political, invisible and structural, and that

6. These Powers are also both good and evil. Evidence for these two observations should have by now proven cumulatively overwhelming and needs no further elaboration.

7. Unless the context further specifies, we are to take the terms for power in their most comprehensive sense, understanding them to mean both heavenly and earthly, divine and human, good and evil powers (see beginning of Part Two, p. 39).

…These categories are mythic. Consequently, our approach to interpretation must avoid all attempts to “modernize” insofar as this means ignoring the mythic dimension of the text and transferring it in an unmediated mediated way into modern (mythic) categories. It may be that the principalities and powers have been neglected as much as they have since the Enlightenment precisely because they were not easily reducible to modem themes.

Chapter 5. Interpreting the Myth

…Eph. 3:10 spoke of the church’s task as proclaiming now the manifold wisdom of God to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. We were unable to find anything in the first-century background capable of making that intelligible within the limits of the modem worldview. But perhaps that point of unintelligibility was reached for some readers even earlier, when, for example, Christ was declared to have already put the Powers under his feet, or when God was said to have led them captive in Christ’s triumphal procession, or when the Powers were affirmed as having been created in and through and for Christ. For the mythic dimension—the atemporal, cosmic, supernatural aspect of the story—was not inserted in the final text we dealt with, as if we had held back the worst for last. It has accompanied us from the outset, permeating every statement made about the Powers. We found, in short, that the mythic is not the residue left over and discardable after precisely that which we may have lost sight of and need to recover.

…What I propose is viewing the spiritual Powers not as separate heavenly or ethereal entities but as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power. I suggest that the “angels of nature” are the patterning of physical things-rocks, trees, plants, the whole God-glorifying, dancing, visible universe; that the “principalities and powers” are the inner or spiritual essence, or gestalt, of an institution or state or system; that the “demons” are the psychic or spiritual power emanated by organizations or individuals or subaspects of individuals whose energies are bent on overpowering others; that “gods” are the very real archetypal or ideological structures that determine or govern reality and its mirror, the human brain; that the mysterious “elements of the universe” (stoicheia cheia tou kosmou) are the invariances (formerly called “laws”) which, though often idolized by humans, conserve the self-consistency of each level of reality in its harmonious interrelationship with every other level and the Whole; and that “Satan” is the actual power that congeals around collective idolatry, injustice, or inhumanity, a power that increases or decreases according to the degree of collective refusal to choose higher values.

…These “Powers” do not, then, on this hypothesis, have a separate, spiritual existence. We encounter them primarily in reference to the material or “earthly” reality of which they are the innermost essence. The spiritual aspect of the Powers is not simply a “personification” of institutional qualities that would exist whether they were personified or not. On the contrary, the spirituality of an institution exists as a real aspect of the institution even when it is not perceived as such.

…The very demons themselves, so long regarded as baleful spirits in the air, are pictured by the Gospels as abhorring decorporealization. When Jesus orders the “Legion” of demons out of the Gerasene demoniac, they plead to be allowed to possess a nearby herd of swine (Mark 5:12). The historicity of the conception is guaranteed regardless of the historicity of the event. The unclean spirit can find no rest without a physical body in which to reside (Luke 11:24-26). The sense is clear: demons can become manifest only through concretion in material reality. They are, in short, the name given that real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities, and nations.

…Even to say, as Cullman did, that the Powers are both earthly and heavenly is, on this reading, still too imprecise. “Both” suggests two different sets of agents, some human or institutional, others divine or demonic. What we are arguing is that the Powers are simultaneously the outer and inner aspects of one and the same indivisible concretion of power. “Spiritual” here means the inner dimension of the material, the “within” of things, the subjectivity of objective entities in the world.2 Instead of the old dualism of matter and spirit, we can now regard matter and spirit as united in one indivisible reality, distinguishable in two discrete but interrelated manifestations.’ Nothing less than insistence on this unity makes sense of the unexplained ambiguity in the usage of the New Testament language of power. Nothing less can account for the authors’ apparent expectation that readers will understand exactly what is meant despite the great fluidity and imprecision of usage.

…It is the tendency to deify the mechanism and reduce human agents to mere things that creates the peculiar demonism of modern capitalist economics.

…We must learn to break the habit of taking a merely visible part for the whole. No one, comments Hinkelammert, has ever seen a company, a school, a state, or a system of ownership. What they have seen are the physical elements of such institutions, that is to say, the building in which the school or business functions, or the people who are its operatives. The institution, however, is the totality of its activities and as such is a mostly invisible object.’ When we confuse what the eye beholds with the totality, we commit the same reductionist fallacy as those Colossians who mistook the basic elements (stoicheia) of things for the ultimate reality (Col. 2:8, 20). The consequence of such confusion is always slavery to the unseen power behind the visible elements: the spirituality of the institution or state or stone.

…The early church understood this quite clearly. When the Roman archons (magistrates) ordered the early Christians to worship the imperial spirit or genius, they refused, kneeling instead and offering prayers on the emperor’s behalf to God. This seemingly innocuous act was far more exasperating and revolutionary than outright rebellion would have been. Rebellion simply acknowledges the absoluteness and ultimacy of the emperor’s power, and attempts to seize it. Prayer denies that ultimacy altogether by acknowledging a higher power. Rebellion would have focused solely on the physical institution and its current incumbents and attempted to displace them by an act of superior force. But prayer challenged the very spirituality of the empire itself and called the empire’s “angel,” as it were, before the judgment seat of God.

Such sedition could not go unpunished. With rebels the solution was simple. No one challenged the state’s right to execute rebels. They had bought into the power-game on the empire’s terms and lost, and the rules of the game required their liquidation. The rebels themselves knew this before they started. But what happens when a state executes those who are praying for it? When Christians knelt in the Colosseum to pray as lions bore down on them, something sullied the audience’s thirst for revenge. Even in death these Christians were not only challenging the ultimacy of the emperor and the “spirit” of empire but also demonstrating the emperor’s powerlessness to impose his will even by death. The final sanction had been publicly robbed of its power. Even as the lions lapped the blood of the saints, Caesar was stripped of his arms and led captive in Christ’s triumphal procession. His authority was shown to be only penultimate after all. And even those who wished most to deny such a thing were forced, by the very punishment they chose to inflict, to behold its truth. It was a contest of all the brute force of Rome against a small sect that merely prayed. Who could have predicted that the tiny sect would win?

…The gnostics were the earliest psychologists, comments Victor White. They explored the inner world by the indirect means of the language of myth, projecting their interior phantasms out on the screen of the heavens and dressing them out in a pretentious allegorizing philosophy. Their radical introspection led them to reject the material world and to be caught finally in the abyss of the archetypes of the collective unconscious.’ The gifts they might have brought to the world at large were vitiated by their understandable inability to make this unconscious process conscious. But they were not even drawn to do so, because their ideology had already rejected the structure of this world for a pseudoreality in the beyond.10

The orthodox church, for its part, rigidly cleaved to materiality but soon found itself the darling of Constantine. Called on to legitimate the empire, the church abandoned much of its social critique. The Powers were soon divorced from political affairs and made airy spirits who preyed only on individuals. The state was thus freed of one of the most powerful brakes against idolatry, although prophetic voices never ceased to be raised now and again anyway.

…What is the mythic point common to all these texts, with their insistence that Christ was previously unknown to the angels? How is it possible for them to be ignorant of their very own principle of systemicity (Col. 1:17, synestiken, the etymological root of our word “system”), the one in whom all things “hold together,” “cohere,” “find their harmonious unity”? How is it that they are ignorant of that in and through and for which they exist (Col. 1:16)? We must lay aside all systematic and logical objections and simply let the myth speak for itself. What it seems to claim is that the universe itself is blind to its own principle of cohesion. It operates cohesively, but without the parts perceiving that fact. Put in a more modern mode, the universe is late in arriving at awareness of itself as a unity, and this awareness has come into the world for the first time with humanity. We can actually date the moment of its dawning in the axiological period of the great prophets of Israel, the philosophers of Greece, and Buddha and Lao-tzu in the East.” It was then that the historically unprecedented sense of the unity of all things first was effectively articulated, although it was probably intuitively sensed far earlier. On the strength of that apprehension, both Israel’s conception of Yahweh’s universal sovereignty and Greek science and philosophy became possible.

With Christ Jesus a new dimension was added, however. The just man is killed. The embodiment of God’s will is executed by God’s servants. The incarnation of the orderly principles of the universe is crucified by the guardians of order. The very nucleus of spiritual power in the universe is destroyed by the spiritual powers. The parts do not or cannot know the effect of their acts on the whole, and some, less innocently, by their worship of their own selfish short-term interests, have become detrimental to the good of the whole. The angels did not know the Lord of glory, nor did the captains and jailers and chief priests and governors. The cosmic process of reconciliation could not begin until they “saw” him.

…The Powers did not know, but they know now. Even many modern secular states bear a legacy of titles that remind them, against even their own dominant ideologies, Whose they are, and why. These states continue to name the various branches of government the civil service, the military service, the ministry of justice, the ministry of education, revealing in these very titles the tacit recognition that they exist only on behalf of the Human revealed as the criterion and basis of all governmental action. When such agencies make themselves ends in themselves, or subject human needs to departmental efficiency or budgetary convenience, they do so, consciously or not, in violation of their vocation. “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?” (Heb. 1:14). Did not Paul himself say that the person who is in authority “is God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:4)?

…Evil, as always, is parasitic of the good and must masquerade as good in order to remain in office.

The church’s task, then, in making known the manifold wisdom of God now to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, does not involve the arduous and hopeless effort of bringing the Powers to a place they have never been, or to a recognition they have never shared. It involves simply reminding the Powers Whose they are, a knowledge already encoded in their charters, titles, traditions, insignia, and money.

…Popular culture has tended to regard heaven (if it has any regard for it at all) as a transcendent, otherworldly sphere qualitatively distinct from human life, to which the dead go if they have been good. What if we were instead to conceive of it as the realm of “withinness,” the metaphorical “place” in which the spirituality of everything is “located,” as it were. “Heaven,” in religions all around the world, is precisely that the place in which the spirituality of everything is “located,” as it were. “Heaven,” in religions all around the world, is precisely that the habitat of angels, spirits, cherubim, and seraphim, but also of demons and the devil and all the Powers “in the heavenly places.” Heaven is simply where they “reside.”

But heaven is a great deal more as well. It is where God is enthroned and thus is the source of the transformative possibilities that God presents to every actual entity. In the language of process theology, God envisions all possibilities and is forever presenting every created thing with the particular relevant possibilities that can maximize the total situation in which it exists, both for itself and for the larger unity of which it is a part. To paraphrase Whitehead, “Heaven” is the “home of the possibles,” not simply in the abstract sense that our potentialities have been planted in us like seeds and that it is up to us to make them sprout. Quite the contrary, our own given potentiality, like that of the acorn, is always merely to repeat the past, to go on being and doing what we have always been and done before. The heavenly possibilities are presented to us as a lure challenging us to go beyond our conditioning and habits, our collusion in oppressing or being oppressed, our inertia, fear, and neuroses. God offers the heavenly possibilities for creative novelty, and we can accept wholly, or accept in part, or reject completely and simply go on repeating our past.

When we do realize a transfonnative possibility, we quite rightly speak of the experience of ecstasy that accompanies that realization as “heavenly.” We have a sense of enhanced realness, of becoming more than we knew we could become. There is a rightness about it that resonates throughout the universe and unites us with the larger purposes of God. Thus when Jesus healed or cast out demons or preached to the poor, he could declare that in that instant the “Reign of heaven” had come on them. When justice is done, we experience a sense of heaven. When a person’s individual interests coincide with the interest of the Whole, there Is an epiphany of heaven. When we die to our egocentricity and abandon ourselves to God, what opens to receive us is heaven. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ … and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-6).

…”Heaven” here cannot be conceived of as “up there” in such a way that it is out of relationship with the earth, for believers are already, while alive, established in it. It was precisely this problem that created the impasse in the interpretation of Eph. 3:10. If the church now must make known God’s manifold wisdom to the principalities and powers in the heavenlies, the heavenlies must somehow be accessible to the church. Insofar as “heaven” encompasses the entire universe, it is certainly not limited to the earth, but it interpenetrates all things, is present in all things, bearing the secret of the potential and inwardness and unfolding of all things.” Thus, according to the Gospel of Thomas, when Jesus’ disciples ask him when the kingdom will come, he responds, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying ‘Here it is’ or ‘Then it is.’ Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it” (NHL, sec. 113). It was said just as well by a seventh-grader in a recent confirmation class: “Heaven is wherever God is acknowledged.”

The ancients sought to express the ubiquitous quality of heaven by piling up numbers in astronomical proportions to indicate the infinity of the hosts of angels (Rev. 5:11, 13; 19:1, 6). Yahweh was the Lord of the universe, but even more often and specifically, “Lord of hosts,” “Lord of Spirits,” “Lord of the Powers,” as if the real test of lordship is the capacity to control the transcendent realm of determining forces that exercise the real day-to-day governance of every aspect of life on earth. The ancients perceived that there was an angel for everything, down to the last blade of grass. This notion, laughed to scorn for the past few centuries, now appears to have been, symbolically, precisely correct: every blade of grass, every rock crystal, acorn, and ovum has its “messenger” (angelos) from God to instruct it in its growth, however we name it (DNA, the “laws” of crystalline formation, etc.).

Such a view of heaven finds it to be “nearer than breathing, closer than hand or foot,” yet still transcendent. But its transcendence is not a transcendence of matter; that is the bias of the old worldview, infected by Neoplatonic aversion to the material universe. “Heaven” in our hypothesis has a transcendence of an altogether different kind; it is the transcendence of the “worldly” way of viewing reality, of the alienated order of existence, of egocentric ways of living, of idolatry of the part in defiance of the Whole, of the unrealized present by the consummation to come. It is transcendent by virtue of inwardness, invisibility, and futurity, not by remoteness and distance. One must, in traditional terms, be “saved” in order to perceive it, not just be better informed. It cannot just be known about; it must be known.

…It is precisely the Jews’ insistence on the inseparability of soul and body that led them to affirm the resurrection of the whole person, spirit, soul, and body. Popular Christianity long since abandoned that for belief in the immortality of the soul, that is, of a bodiless continuation in the pure realm of spirit. Against this view Paul had already coined the notion of a “spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:35-57). Just what this paradoxical formulation means is not nearly so important as that it is asserted. We cannot conceive it, but it serves to hold the myth open into eternity and prevents its collapsing into a dualism of spirit versus matter. However incomprehensible it is in literal terms, it is the necessary symbolic affirmation that life is always life in a body, that spirit cannot exist apart from its concretion in form, that the victory of life over death includes the transformed vehicle by means of which, and solely by means of which, we have known what it means to be alive. All the rest is trust.

…If the theology of the future must win its right to speak by being a continual reflection on praxis, on the actual struggle of humanity for authentic being, then we must be careful to keep the ring of that voice clear in our ears.

At the same time, however, one still must ask how the neighbor became oppressed and is kept that way. How has she internalized that spirit of oppression and granted legitimacy to the very Powers that oppress her? How can all the “flaming darts of the evil one” that have carried their poisonous secretions into her very bloodstream be pulled out, one by one, and the toxins filtered out? How can she be freed to authentic struggle, unless the very ideas and images that have been planted in her are torn out by the very roots, through the vision of a counterreality capable of improving her lot?

…The issue, then, is not social struggle versus inner change, but their orchestration together so that both occur simultaneously. The transformation of society and persons can begin at either end. The early church began from the pole of steadfastness in prayer and the refusal of idolatry, manifesting that hypomoni which the Book of Revelation regards as the highest Christian virtue. It is usually somewhat limply rendered “patient endurance,” but it is in fact closer to “absolute intransigence,” “unbending bending determination,” “an iron will,” “the capacity to endure persecution, torture, and death without yielding one’s faith.” It is one of the fundamental attributes of nonviolent resistance.

…Social involvement of that kind can do wonders for the soul-if the leadership understands the essential unity of body and spirit and addresses them both.

This unity must be kept paramount in addressing the Powers. It is easy enough to set oneself against the visible evil of a Power. But we never have control over that inner dimension of reality which we are calling the spiritual dimension of power.

…Change is possible, but only if the spirit as well as the forms of Power are touched. And that spirit can only be spiritually discerned and spiritually encountered. This is what made Martin Luther King, Jr., a figure of world-historic proportions. With only the powerless at his side, he formulated actions that would provoke and make visible the institutional violence of racism. By absorbing that violence in their own bodies, they exposed the legalized system as immoral, stripped it of legitimacy, and forced unprecedented numbers of people to choose between their racism and their Christianity. He resolutely refused to treat racism as a political issue only; he insisted that it be seen also as a moral and spiritual sickness. He did not attack the soul of America, but appealed to its most profound depths. His confrontational tactics were attempts to address that soul. He called a nation to repent, and significant numbers did. In the process the spirit of the nation itself began to change. His assassination, and the abandonment of the moral basis of the struggle for one of black power versus white power, allowed the worst elements of the ugly racist spirit to reassert themselves, this time with blacks no longer the vanguard of reconciliation and conversion, but openly espousing a counterracism of their own. Those who continued to insist on loving the enemy and working interracially were buried under the flood of poisons now unleashed from both sides. Blacks and whites not only ceased to work together, but even stopped speaking. The adoption of the methods of the oppressor had finally turned all parties into oppressors, and it was now only a matter of finding someone weak enough to oppress.

…Impatient patient with the pace of a struggle that sought not only legal equality but the conversion of the very heart of the nation from racism, black power attempted the quick fix of structural change by a frontal assault on white power. Its epitaph can be formulated as an axiom: the direct use of power against a Power will inevitably be to the advantage of The Powers That Be.

…That is why we must not engage the Powers without rigorous examination nation of our own inner evil, which we often project on our opponents. We must ask how we are like the very Power we oppose, and attempt to open these parts of ourselves to divine transformation. We must attempt to stop the spiral of violence both within ourselves and in our tactics vis-i-vis the Powers. We must discern the spirituality that we oppose and be careful not to grant it victory within ourselves. And we must settle it within ourselves, once and for all and then over and over again, that we will not celebrate any victory feast that does not include a setting for our enemy.

In short, we must develop a fine-tuned sensitivity to what the ancients called “the war in heaven.”2′ It is the unseen clash of values and ideologies, of the spirituality of institutions and the will of God, of demonic factionalism and heavenly possibilities.

…I am referring to the macrocosm/microcosm view of reality-the notion that whatever happens on earth (the “microcosm,” or small world) is a mirror image of the activities of Powers in heaven (the “macrocosm,” or large world). The idea was already hoary with age when it was chiseled on the buildings erected by the Sidonian kings Bodastart and Esmunazar in the fifth century B.C.E., where the earthly Sidon is depicted as a copy of its heavenly prototype.” The idea of heaven as the origination and prototype of all that is can be traced back among the Greeks as early as Pythagoras and finds its most famous advocate in Plato, with his realm of the Ideas or archetypes. Greek Orphism made the unity of heaven and earth the goal of the mystical initiation, in which the quester sought to recapture this deepest and lost unity that characterizes divinization.21

Israel, too, held this macrocosm/microcosm view from earliest times,’ but hedged it carefully to prevent its being used to legitimate tyranny. The prophets especially were on their guard against the divine-kingship ideology, through which the most gross injustices were perpetrated in the name of heaven. The Jews were able to appropriate the notion of evil spirits, fallen angels, and Satan precisely because they could subsume these Powers within a secure henotheistic 27 framework in which Yahweh was ultimately sovereign.

…It is far from the case, then, that human beings create their gods. The “spirits” of things emerge with the things themselves and are only subsequently divined as their inner essence. The gods, spirits, and demons are not mere personifications or hypostatizations. That is the language of reductionism; it means that these entitites are not regarded as real, but only as poetic fictions or shorthand for speaking about realities the historian knows how to describe more precisely with his analytical tools. Personification means illusion. The Powers we are speaking about, on the contrary, are real. They work on us whether we acknowledge them or not. They do not depend on our belief for their efficacy. Humans cannot even lay claim to creating these Powers indirectly, by virtue of creating the structures, for studies of primates show that most of the hierarchical features that characterized Babylonian society had already been developed in primate societies.’ To be sure, we do establish new structures and modify old ones. Insofar as we share in the creative process and bring new consciousness to it, we help create the spirituality of things. There is a reciprocity, so we could argue that it is as true to say that the gods create us as to say that we create the gods.

…In the New Testament the idea of heavenly/earthly correspondence is a part of the background belief of the age and is alluded to in a fashion that assumes the hearer’s thorough familiarity with it. When the disciples return from the Lukan mission of the seventy, having successfully cast out demons on earth, Jesus exclaims, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Casting out demons on earth casts Satan out of heaven! Or again, Paul’s irritation with women who have uncovered heads at worship is prompted by his fear that the angels, also present when the church worships, will be incited to lust (1 Cor. 11:10; see Gen. 6:1-4). And in the Epistle to the Hebrews the believer already participates in heavenly life on earth: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering” (12:22).”

The Book of Revelation is thoroughly acquainted with this motif. Not only is John permitted access to the divine liturgy through vision (chaps. 4-5), but the prayers of the saints on earth actually constitute an important section of the angelic liturgy in heaven. Rev. 8:1-5 recounts how an angel gathers the prayers that ascend to God and mingles them with incense at the altar before the throne; then when God has, as it were, inhaled them, the angel mixes the prayers with fire from the altar and hurls them on the earth, setting off a chain of physical and historical repercussions in the world. This not only illustrates the unity of heavenly and earthly events but also indicates how the fatefulness of that connection can be altered. Left to themselves, the course of things runs to havoc in a world with an infinity of self-worshiping centers, but when any of that number turn from themselves to the Center of the whole, history itself can be changed. “Peals of thunder, loud noises, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (v. 5) throw the river of events out of its bed. The unexpected becomes suddenly possible, because humans on earth have evoked heaven, the home of the possibles, and have been heard.

…The soul or self is the active awareness of the entire living body itself. And yet this “withinness” is experienced as more than simply the sum of its parts, since our bodily parts continually change or can even to a degree be lost without impairing the sense of our selves. In an odd way, we seem to experience our selves as “outside” or “above” or “transcendent” to our bodies, even though the self is clearly the interiority of all that flesh. But this is one of the ways interiority is known. We can discover the self by introspection, reflection, revelation, but some aspects we can find only by projecting that aspect out on other people or things or events and recognizing it “out there” as parts of ourselves. We discover our body as “temple” by going to a temple.

…Once again, the meaning of an ambiguous statement is precisely its ambiguity. The Reign of God cannot just be inner or outer; it must be both or it is neither.

This being the case, the goal of personal individuation becomes inseparable separable from the goal of cosmic reconciliation: “Jesus said to them, `When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and female one and the same … then will you enter [the kingdom].’ “49

…The marriage of heaven and earth, which the author of Ephesians describes under the image of the marriage of Christ and the church (Eph. 5:21-33) and which the Book of Revelation depicts as a descent of Heavenly Jerusalem to the earth from God (Revelation 21-22), captures the sense of earth’s real possibilities and of ours with it. Paul describes the same longing in Rom. 8:18-25, when he speaks of the whole creation as groaning in speaks of the whole creation as groaning in travail together for the revealing of the children of God. It is nothing less than the desire for what Dorothee Soelle calls “the indivisible divisible salvation of the whole world.”-10 When God’s children will be revealed, and the groaning over, and every tear wiped from their eyes, is not for us to know. What we do know is that we have been handed the task of making known the manifold wisdom of God to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places—now.

January 2, 2018

in his motion like an angel sings

Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

~Lorenzo, Acte V, Scene 1

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

January 2, 2018

Christ in Fairyland

From “The Secret Commonwealth” by David Bentley Hart (October 2009):

One need not believe in fairies to grasp that there is no good reason why one ought not to do so. To see the world as inhabited by these vital intelligences, or to believe that behind the outward forms of nature there might be an unperceived realm of (intelligent order, is simply to respond rationally to one of the ways in which the world seems to address us, when we intuit simultaneously its rational frame and the depth of mystery it seems to hide from us. It may be that the apprehension of such an unseen order, when it comes in the form of folklore about fabulous beings, has been overlaid by numerous strata of illusion, but so what? Everything we know about reality comes to us with a certain alloy of illusion, not accidentally, but as an indispensable condition. Even the dreariest Kantian can tell you that our ability to know the world depends upon those transcendental qualities the mind impresses upon it before it can impress them upon the mind, and that all perception requires the supreme fictions of the synthetic a priori. At the most primordial level of consciousness, the discrimination between truth and fantasy—if by truth, one means the strictly empirically verifiable—becomes merely formal.

Moreover, even if one suspects this is not a matter so much of illusion as of delusion, again that is of no consequence. A delusion this amiable is endlessly preferable to boredom, for boredom is the one force that can utterly defeat the will to be, and so the will to care at all what is or is not true. It is only some degree of prior enchantment that allows the eye to see, and to seek to see yet more. And so, deluded or not, a belief in fairies will always be in some sense far more rational than the absolute conviction that such things are sheer nonsense, and that the cosmos consists in nothing but brute material events in haphazard combinations. Or, I suppose, another way of saying this would be that the ability of any of us to view the world with some sort of contemplative rationality rests upon the capacity we possessed as children to see in everything a kind of articulate mystery, and to believe in far more than what ordinary vision discloses to us: a capacity that endows us with that spiritual eros that allows us to know and love the world, and that we are wise to continue to cultivate in ourselves even after age and disillusion have weakened our sight.

Here are two other blog posts in which David Bentley Hart writes about related ideas:

At the bottom of most traditional images of Christ’s baptism (Theophany icons), there are two figures riding fish (or waves or other sea creatures) and turning away or fleeing from Jesus Christ as He enters the water. These two figures represent all the powers of the deep as they were subdued by Jesus Christ when he entered into the Jordan river. Specifically, the two figures are personifications of the Red Sea and the Jordan River. These two bodies of water are connected together by the Biblical story of Israel fleeing from Egypt and being rescued by God as they crossed the Red Sea at the start of their journey and the Jordan River at the end. We see this idea of God subduing these bodies of water within Psalm 114:5, where the singer writes: “What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back?”

Within some of these ancient images, these two figures are easily lost amid all of the other activity:

Baptism Icon 02

In some images, these figures are blended in with the water as if they are themselves made of water:

Baptism Icon 03 detail

Often, one of the figures is pouring water out of a great jar, representing the headwaters or the source and origin of the seas and rivers:

Baptism Icon 05 detail

Most often, these figures are shown riding fish and other water creatures, with their local authority represented by the rods, yokes, and reins in their hands. In this last icon, we also see the serpents of the deep crushed under the gates of Hades (in the shape of the cross). Many hymns and prayers at Theophany reference the dragons and sea monsters lurking in the waters and crushed by Christ at his baptism.

Baptism Icon 06 detail

These personifications of the Jordan River and the Red Sea are typically understood as simply symbolic. Throughout some of Christian church history, such natural “authorities” have also been understood as demonic. However, within the worldview of those who wrote the Bible and painted these images, these figures were understood as real powers within God’s created order who could serve either God or other powers (such as themselves or the demonic forces). Bible writers refer often to the “gods” as real entities (and not necessarily demonic), and Paul speaks regularly about the various ranks of created “powers” and “authorities” who were made subject to Jesus Christ after his resurrection and ascension to be enthroned in heaven. In Colossians 1:20, Paul says that Christ has reconciled “to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” Within the Bible, there is clearly an idea of various types of created powers within nature (heaven and earth) that were originally subject to God (and to humans as God’s image bearers). However, after the fall of humanity, these powers were no longer under clear authority. They could sometimes serve demonic or angelic powers, but might also be simply “neutral agents” connected to many of the specific places and forces of God’s created world. Some scholars would understand all such authorities as being among the various ranks of angels (those who fell away from service to God as well as those who continued to serve their Creator). However, some Bible passages suggest that there are more complex ranks and categories of spiritual and ethereal creatures than simply the angels. One hymn in the Royal Hours for Theophany even references the “gin” (from an Antiochian service):

O Life-giving Lord, when Thou didst come to the Jordan in the flesh, in the likeness of man, willing to be baptized to lighten us who have erred, delivering us from all the wiles of the dragon and his gins.

Regardless of what we might make of all this, it also seems clear from scripture that we are not to be fascinated or fearful regarding these realms and powers. They are not our direct responsibility or concern. The Scriptures simply make it clear that we have nothing to fear in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, however, it is also unhealthy to simply dismiss all such created powers as simply superstitious nonsense. David Bentley Hart makes this point wonderfully in the essays linked above. It is good to have a sense of wonder and mystery about the various powers within God’s creation (without fearing them or seeking to control them).

C.S. Lewis makes this case for the ambiguous realm of these mythic creatures:

I have put the Longaevi or longlivers into a separate chap­ter because their place of residence is ambiguous between air and Earth. Whether they are important enough to justify this arrangement is another question. In a sense, if I may risk the oxymoron, their unimportance is their importance. They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the Model does not assign, as it were, an oficial status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.

As David Bentley Hart claims: “Deluded or not, a belief in fairies will always be in some sense far more rational than the absolute conviction that such things are sheer nonsense, and that the cosmos consists in nothing but brute material events in haphazard combinations.” As Shakespeare famously puts it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet 1.5.167-8). Although Hamlet may simply be criticizing Horatio here, within in the First Folio (1623), the text actually reads “our philosophy,” suggesting that Shakespeare was speaking in general terms about the limitations of human thought.

Finally, we may also go one step further than simply a call to humility and childlike wonder. As we submit our lives with humble thanksgiving to Jesus Christ, we may also know that we bless all the powers of nature who continue to wait “with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). David Bentley Hart suggests that human society may change the nature of the “Hidden Commonwealth” that exists within the hills and streams surrounding us. He does this in the essay link at the top when he contrasts the “more Titanic than Olympian” character of the New World faeries with “the winsome charm of their European counterparts” who were “exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization.” This idea can easily become bigotry and imperialism under a strange guise, but it also suggests that it matters tremendously to the created world around us how we live our lives and the kinds of communities that we shape.

We have many precedents for this. For centuries in the east and west, Christian monastic communities intentionally sought out the most desolate places in order to take the fight directly to the evil spirits there and to reestablish communion with God in these places (for the monastics themselves as well as for all human society and for all of the created world around them). “Ever since Elijah[,] the desert had been the preordained place for the restoration of all things.” (From Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought by George H. Williams, page 46. This resource contains some good discussion of the monastic understanding of their relationships with the powers of the created world.) In the Celtic tradition particularly, monasteries were repeatedly established in the most remote forests and swamps only to become thriving town centers. If Jesus Christ makes the rivers and seas into his servants, that is just one more reason for us to treat every stream and swamp with all due respect.

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Note: a wonderful question from a reader lead to this further effort to collect my thoughts: Faerie and the Endeavor of Christian Formation. Also, I only read chapter VI in The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis (entitled “The Longaevi”) after writing the initial draft of this post, and I quickly inserted the one key quote above from this essential essay by Lewis. Not surprisingly, Lewis left me thinking about much more that will ultimately refine some of what I have tried to formulate in this post. See also this post from Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.”

July 31, 2017

by considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill

Whenever you are in trouble, in some scrape, on the verge of despair or in despair, remember: that’s life speaking to you in the only language it knows well. In other words, try to be a little masochistic: without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete. If this is of any help, try to remember that human dignity is an absolute, not a piecemeal notion, that it is inconsistent with special pleading, that it derives its poise from denying the obvious. Should you find this argument a bit on the heady side, think at least that by considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill, since a paralyzed will is no dainty for angels.

By Joseph Brodsky [unknown source, posted by friend on social media].

July 2, 2017

public life is not larger than private life, but smaller

From G.K. Chesterton’s “Turning Inside Out” in Fancies vs. Fads, 1923:

The passage from private life to public life … is always of necessity a passage from a greater work to a smaller one, and from a harder work to an easier one. And that is why most of the moderns do wish to pass from the great domestic task to the smaller and easier commercial one. They would rather provide the liveries of a hundred footmen than be bothered with the love-affairs of one. They would rather take the salutes of a hundred soldiers than try to save the soul of one. They would rather serve out income-tax papers or telegraph forms to a hundred men than meals, conversation, and moral support to one. They would rather arrange the educational course in history or geography, or correct the examination papers in algebra or trigonometry, for a hundred childrcn, than struggle with the whole human character of one. For anyone who makes himself responsible for one small baby, as a whole, will soon find that he is wrestling with gigantic angels and demons.

In another way there is something of illusion, or of irresponsibility, about the purely public function, especially in the case of public education. The educationist generally deals with only one section of the pupil’s mind. But he always deals with only one section of the pupils life. The parent has to deal, not only with the whole of the child’s character, but also with the whole of the child’s career. The teacher sows the seed, but the parent reaps as well as sows. The school-master sees more children, but it is not clear that he sees more childhood; certainly he sees less youth and no maturity. The number of little girls who take prussic acid is necessarily small. The boys who hang themselves on bed-posts, after a life of crime, are generally the minority. But the parent has to envisage the whole life of the individual, and not merely the school life of the scholar. …Everybody knows that teachers have a harassing and often heroic task, but it is not unfair to them to remember that in this sense they have an exceptionally happy task. The cynic would say that the teacher is happy in never seeing the results of his own teaching. I prefer to confine myself to saying that he has not the extra worry of having to estimate it from the other end. The teacher is seldom in at the death. To take a milder theatrical metaphor, he is seldom there on the night. But this is only one of many instances of the same truth: that what is called public life is not larger than private life, but smaller. What we call public life is a fragmentary affair of sections and seasons and impressions; it is only in private life that dwells the fullness of our life bodily.

June 18, 2016

Learning to Laugh with Angels

He remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied on behind it. The whole gave him a sensation, the vividness of which he could not explain, that Nature was always making quite mysterious jokes. …He wondered whether even the archangels understood the hornbill.

Coming across this passage yesterday in G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday and being flat on my back today with a high fever, I spent some time reflecting on his theme of heavenly humor. This topic is taken up by several other Christain authors including C.S. Lewis. For example, this scene in The Magician’s Nephew when a Jackdaw has an awkward moment just after Aslan has given voices to all of the animals in the new world of Narnia:

“Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.”

So they all let themselves go. And there was such merriment that the Jackdaw himself plucked up courage again and perched on the cab-horse’s head, between its ears, clapping its wings, and said:

“Aslan! Aslan! Have I made the first joke? Will everybody always be told how I made the first joke?”

“No, little friend,” said the Lion. “You have not made the first joke; you have only been the first joke.” Then everyone laughed more than ever; but the Jackdaw didn’t mind and laughed just as loud till the horse shook its head and the Jackdaw lost its balance and fell off, but remembered its wings (they were still new to it) before it reached the ground.

Chesterton, like Lewis, clearly had a high view of humor and defended it often. His two main themes on the topic are the goodness of human laughter vs. the awfulness of divine laughter. Chesterton suggests that human laughter is an almost unmitigated good. Here are several examples from over the course of his lifetime:

  • Laughter has something in it in common with the ancient winds of faith and inspiration; it unfreezes pride and unwinds secrecy; it makes men forget themselves in the presence of something greater than themselves; something (as the common phrase goes about a joke) that they cannot resist.
  • For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.
  • Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.
  • Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.
  • It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.
  • Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.

And this one (which most directly sheds light on the hornbill passage at the start of this post):

Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshipers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.

In another vein, however, Chesterton suggests that God’s laughter is a serious (even terrible) thing—too wonderful for us—something that we must be protected from or that we are mercifully incapable of hearing:

We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.

In a later passage, Chesterton suggests that divine laughter is not so much inaudible to us as it is mercifully hidden us:

The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

In an even more serious-sounding passage that I cannot find, Chesterton says (if my memory serves me), that exposure to the raw power of our Creator’s laugh, in our current sickened condition, would virtually unmake us. Certainly God’s laughter in some Old Testament passages is something very close to judgement. We may also, perhaps, learn something about God’s humor (and I say this tentatively because I doubt that I am right but I still think it worth considering) through a study of the lives of holy fools or through the preaching and the satirical skits of certain Old Testament prophets (see God’s compromise with Ezekiel in 4:15, for example).

Of course, this point about God’s laughter being dangerous is part of a larger theme in Chesterton as well as Lewis and Tolkien: heavenly things are so good that they (in one sense) pain or hurt us in our current condition. In The Great Divorce, Lewis famously describes people from hell stepping off of a bus that has taken them to heaven. They decide that the grass in heaven is too painfully real. They would rather return to hell than endure the too-substantial grass of heaven. However (and Lewis would agree), God’s goodness is always and ultimately wholesome, even when it pains us. We see this perfectly in Jesus Christ. His divine humor may have been heavily veiled as Chesterton suggests, but Jesus clearly teased and jested with those closest to Him. This simple human laughter of Jesus never comes up directly in scripture, but it is easy to imagine what a gift it would have been in the hearts of those who loved Him. In helpful contrast to Chesterton’s reflections on Christ’s awful and hidden divine humor, Patrick Henry Reardon talks about Christ’s sense of humor, and Reardon fully humanizes it. He makes the case that Christ regularly enjoyed laughter with those closest to him:

Jesus related to these original disciples—even from the beginning—as ‘individuals,’ as particular men. He does not permit their specific identities to become lost in the group. Philip, Andrew, Thomas, and the others preserve their individual characters. Observe, for instance, how he teases them. Jesus’ irony toward Nathaniel is a perfect example of this [John 1:45-47].

…What shall we say of the nickname Jesus gave to the two sons of Zebedee: James and John? He called them “sons of thunder,” which in our modern idiom would be “hotheads.” One suspects the brothers received this moniker because … they [once] said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:52–54)

…Luke relished the irony of it: John bar Zebedee … got his wish … when the church at Jerusalem sent him … as one of its delegates to call down on the Samaritans the true fire from heaven—the Holy Spirit.

…Peter, when he felt enthusiastic, imagined himself invincible … [and ] readily mistook a rush of adrenaline for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit…. Jesus surely recognized the name’s improbability in Peter’s case. The only time [that Peter] showed any rocklike quality was on that memorable occasion when he attempted to walk on water!

…In all these instances, we perceive a light and jocund side of Jesus’ relationship with these men, whom he chose ‘that they might be with Him’ (Mark 3:14). With these disciples, Jesus carried himself as a man among men, to whom he was bound by the sorts of habits, attitudes, and discourse [by which] normal men establish friendships and maintain loyalties.

There are some clear parallels between Reardon’s portrait of Jesus (jesting with his closest followers) and Lewis’ portrayal of Aslan (the first joker encouraging laughter over the vivacious Jackdaw). However, there is also a comforting difference between these two accounts. The humor exercised by Jesus is more gentle, subtle, and deeply personal than that of Lewis’ Aslan. To those learning to follow Him, Christ is a gentle friend (in the aggregate at least).

Finally, in Reardon’s account, Jesus’ joking is connected almost entirely to renaming and nicknames. It is remarkable that Jesus’ humor is bound up so closely with something that is so central to His identity as the Logos, by whose words all things are made and sustained. Naming is a task that God calls humans to share with Him, and Adam’s naming of each animal might have involve more laughter than we imagine. Chesterton may be onto something with his idea that the angels themselves are still learning to laugh at the hornbill. Furthermore, simply by process of elimination, it seems possible that humans with a healthy sense of humor could provide an important example for any angels who are still learning to see God’s mirth on display throughout creation. This line of thinking about Jesus’ enjoyment of clever nicknames also puts new possibilities into play when it comes to the intimate name that Christ has prepared for each of His saints (Revelation 2:17). Each of God’s children may be revealed as an even better joke than the Jackdaw before all is said and done. For my part, I take some comfort in the hope of garnering a few laughs as the trillion-and-first joke when my own time comes.

Nonetheless, if I make light of myself, this is not to make light of humanity or of my own high calling to communion with God. (As Chesterton says: “Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.”) In Christ, Peter did live up to his nickname.

June 17, 2016

he wondered whether even the archangels understood the hornbill

He remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied on behind it. The whole gave him a sensation, the vividness of which he could not explain, that Nature was always making quite mysterious jokes. Sunday had told them that they would understand him when they had understood the stars. He wondered whether even the archangels understood the hornbill.

From Thursday by G.K. Chesterton.

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