Posts tagged ‘Hart’

May 26, 2018

Building Folklore Wealth

Stable, local, human communities accumulate folklore over generations. This is a form of wealth that we are no longer capable of producing, valuing, or enjoying. Modern nation-states* no longer have the stable local communities or the value systems required for folklore creation and maintenance. It is well worth considering the many profound values offered by a growing store of folklore as well as the way that a human life is shaped when it is lived in pursuit of this form of wealth.

Folklore cannot be produced and maintained by any single person, no matter how powerful or gifted they are. It requires whole human communities with each of these qualities:

  1. Frequent and reliable communication patterns sustained over a defined geographical region for many generations.
  2. Significant leisure time for all classes or subsets of the community to spend listening to and telling stories together in person so that deep repositories of oral tradition are continually being created and maintained.
  3. Strong shared purposes and desires across all classes or subsets of the community so that heroes, villains, and all other story elements will be identified within the community, translated into folklore and/or mythology and carry these clusters of meaning and value onward for generations of people who will hear and retell the stories.

Human communities can value and produce many other types of stories, such as literature (great books) or entertainment (theater and film). However, folklore is radically different from even the most beloved classics of a literary culture, whether we are talking about the sacred writings of a community or simply the “great books” that become enshrined within the halls of education. Even more removed from folklore are the pop songs, comic books, TV shows, and blockbusters of our modern entertainment industry (or the opera, ballet and theater of earlier eras). While some communities within our modern society still have urban legends that develop, almost all other forms of story-telling or myth-making have been commodified or monetized by TV, Hollywood, Disney, celebrity culture, or pulp fiction.

It may be possible for human societies to maintain and enjoy a strong folklore heritage while also enjoying vibrant literary and entertainment cultures. However, there are clearly some elements of mutually exclusive conditions required for communities to consistently develop and enjoy folklore vs. blockbuster films. These different mediums require radically different forms of attention and human interaction, and they also directly compete for limited quantities of leisure time.

The products of folklore have been made very profitable by companies such as Disney and many others. However, folklore as a living practice within a community has never been connected to money or power. Can you imagine the originators of Br’er Rabbit or Robin Hood stories giving a fig about the opportunity to influence the high and mighty of this world? There is a kind of wealth reflected in these stories that cannot be easily given to anyone or easily taken away. Ever since the rise of capitalist economies, we no longer measure wealth in the most substantial or communal of categories. In a strange and vivid little image of what we have lost, C.S. Lewis laments that our society will never see “Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads” (source here). Imagine if all economic and political energies focused entirely on goals such as:

  1. Depth and vibrancy of local folklore traditions.
  2. Rich genetic variety within local strains of produce or livestock.
  3. Or any quantifiable measures of shared spiritual lives and collective empathy across various classes and subcultures within local communities.

Societal values or objectives such as these would radically raise the bar on our ideas of progress and would require very different personal and collective commitments and decision-making criteria. Of all such standards, measuring the health of a rich local folklore is arguably the most meaningful single indicator of a society’s true wealth. This is because the growth of folklore and myth require so many other factors in order to develop: many generations of stable food supplies, predictable family structures, substantial leisure time spent physically together swapping stories that reflect and maintain shared value systems across various social classes.

We have lost the capacity to create and to enjoy folklore because, for many generations now, we have relied upon the written word and because we have pursued money over the ties of family and local community. Our loss of substantial time spent together in conversation and story telling has radically changed the nature of human society and individual experience. After many centuries of writing (and now well beyond the printed age and into the digital age), it is impossible for us to understand the extent of our isolation from each other and from the physical places that we inhabit. When one generation after another spends countless hours standing barefoot on the same piece of land and when these generations of barefoot people sit around the same fire to share the sames stories, the people, their land, and their stories all become one seamless fabric. This is a fabric that our fathers and mothers were torn out of a very long time ago. Writing as a tool for money, power, comfort, and entertainment has come to dominate our human interactions in ways that we cannot see or evaluate from the inside. About 2400 years ago, Socrates made this prophetic point in his dialogue with Phaedrus (written down, ironically, by Plato):

The parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the usefulness or uselessness of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of the written alphabet, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to letters a quality that they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. [That] which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. [Translation by Benjamin Jowett (with a few of my own minor clarifications into more contemporary language).]

What would it look like to live a life committed to the restoration of stable local cultures capable of multi-generational creation and enjoyment of rooted oral traditions? I have no idea. It is almost certainly not a goal that any one individual could take up in any meaningful way. It is a goal that would require a community and the commitment of multiple generations. Nonetheless, I pray for the vision to somehow be included in such a work. I have no expectation of being able to see the thing of which I wish to be a part, but I pray that I might still, in some small way, be a part of it. This is not an opposition to writing or to the digital age. I love both alongside oral culture without any sense of contradiction. However, I am saying that our sense of value, proportion and priority are tragically damaged and distorted in ways that must be healed.

There is one more aspect to this vision that is even much more difficult to articulate. God’s entire creation participates in God’s own bright and fiery life of love, and all of creation also participated in human life as human life is made in the very image and likeness of God. I believe that spirits frolic, dance, and sing with every star, sand grain, leaf, ant, and asteroid in this cosmos-temple. When Job 38:7 speaks of how “the morning stars sang together,” I take that very literally.

God made many kinds of living creatures, and they all can be blessed (or harmed) by the life that humans take up (or forfeit) as God’s image bearers and priestly officiants within this loud and swirling temple throng that inhabits God’s creation. These spirits are typically not concerned or obligated in any conscious way by human life (or even by the life of God their maker, given that we’re in a fallen world). Often the disinterest that these other creatures show toward everything that we think is central to our human lives is the greatest gift that these creatures can offer to us. In any case, consciously interested in humanity or not, these many spirits are all bound up with us mortals in ways that run deeper than anything known by even the holiest saints and angels.

Humanity has always known these truths within our oral traditions. We inhabit a world of many spirits, and we know this very well within our folklore. Distinguished Notre Dame professor and world-renowned philosopher David Bentley Hart wrote about this world of spirits in “The Secret Commonwealth” (First Things, 2009). He describes a fabled pamphlet publication by a Scottish Presbyterian minister and Bible translator Robert Kirk (1644 to 1692). In addition to being a scholar trained at St. Andrew’s and Edinburgh, a master of Celtic tongues, and the author of the Gaelic Psalter of 1684, Reverend Kirk also possessed the second sight and wrote a short treaties on “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies” (which I have read for myself). David Bentley Hart writes:

One aspect of Kirk’s investigations I find especially interesting is the purely autochthonous quality he ascribes to the second sight. Once removed from his native heath, says Kirk, a prophet loses the virtue that allows him to see the other world, and he becomes as blind to preternatural presences as any other mortal. He is like Antaeus raised up off the earth. Not only is every fairy a genius loci, every seer is a vates loci with a strictly limited charter. And the reason it pleases me to learn this is that it allows me to offer a riposte to an English friend of mine “a famous theologian whose name (which is John Milbank) I should probably withhold” who has quite a keen interest in fairies, and who regards it as a signal mark of the spiritual inferiority of America that its woods and dells, mountains, and streams, are devoid of such creatures.

In proof of this, he once cited to me the report of some English traveler in the New World who sent back a dispatch from Newfoundland (or somewhere like that) complaining that there were no fairies to be found in these desolate climes. But, ah no, I can say (having read Kirk), of course some displaced sassenach wandering in the woods of North America would be able to perceive none of their ethereal inhabitants, as any faculty he might have had for seeing them would have deserted him. And, anyway, anyone familiar with the Native lore of the Americas knows that multitudes of dangerous and beneficent manitous haunt or haunted these lands. They may lack some of the winsome charm of their European counterparts, not having been exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization; and they may therefore be somewhat more Titanic than Olympian in their general character and deportment; but they certainly do not merit disdain or a refusal to acknowledge their existence.

Kirk and Hart both make it clear that a profound relationship exists between the land that human families inhabit and the storied forms of life that share this land with us. Beyond this, Hart strongly suggests that human communities somehow “domesticate” or otherwise influence the local spirits and stories over the course of generations. Hart says that North American fairies “may lack some of the winsome charm of their European counterparts, not having been exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization.” This may include some cultural snobbery but may also be mixed with a profound understanding of the many New Testament passages such as 1 Peter 3:22 that speak of the ways in which all “angels, authorities, and powers have been made subject to [Jesus Christ].” Paul and all of the apostles inhabited a world permeated by diverse spirits and all deeply intertwined with the will of God for His image bearers.

As someone who grew up in a largely pagan and premodern Asian culture (throughout my childhood listening to shaman and séances working and chanting loudly through the night while following the water buffaloes through the rice paddies and swarms of dragonflies by day), I know just a little about oral cultures. The oldest son of a Presbyterian minister, I’ve ended up standing (for as many holy day as I can manage) within an Eastern Orthodox Church reciting very long verbal liturgies that have developed very slowly over millennia.

I certainly have no idea what I am doing or how to apply any of this for anyone else. However, it has been a great personal blessing to me as I have seen pieces of the human story come together for me more clearly across time and place. Therefore, I’ve shared these thoughts, and I do commend a life lived with a desire to grow in respect for stories and for their vital places within specific human communities.

Peter Pan is not an example of folklore (but of literary culture), and Peter is wrong when he claims: “Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.” However, I do think that every time a family sits down together to the table in their home, there are a few unseen creatures who care enough to pause and to either laugh or cry over every word that is said.

End Notes

* Nation-state: this is a term coined by historians to describe a radical reorganization of human communities within modernity that represented unprecedented power structures and value systems. Historians continue to dispute exactly how nation-states came into existence, but there is wide agreement that nation states represent a cataclysmic and a relatively recent development in the rules and structures by which humans live and work together. In many ways, nation-states throw an invisibility cloak over the systems of empire and economic domination that drive the stories of interactions between human communities across time.

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May 2, 2018

true beauty is not the idea of the beautiful

David Bentley Hart (The Beauty of the Infinite, pp. 176-177):

The harmony of Father and Son is not the absolute music of an undifferentiated noise, but the open, diverse, and complete polyphony of Father, Son, and Spirit.

…The most elemental statement of theological aesthetics is that God is beautiful: not only that God is beauty or the essence and archetype of beauty, nor even only that God is the highest beauty, but that, as Gregory the Theologian says, “God is beauty and also beautiful, whose radiance shines upon and is reflected in his creatures” (Oration 28.30-31).

…God’s beauty is delight and the object of delight, the shared gaze of love that belongs to the persons of the Trinity; it is what God beholds, what the Father sees and rejoices in the Son, in the sweetness of the Spirit, what Son and Spirit find delightful in one another, because as Son and Spirit of the Father they share his knowledge and love as persons. This cannot be emphasized enough: the Christian God, who is infinite, is also infinitely formosus, the supereminent fullness of all form, transcendently determinate, always possessed of his Logos. True beauty is not the idea of the beautiful, a static archetype in the “mind” of God, but is an infinite “music,” drama, art, completed in–but never “bounded” by–the termless dynamism of the Trinity’s life; God is boundless, and so is never a boundary; his music possesses the richness of every transition, interval, measure variation–all dancing and delight. And because he is beautiful, being abounds with difference: shape, variety, manifold relation. Beauty is the distinction of the different, the otherness of the other, the true form of distance. And the Holy Spirit who perfects the divine love, so that it is not only reflective but also evocative–calling out to yet another as pure delight, outgoing, both uncompelled and unlimited–also makes the divine joy open to the otherness of what is not divine, of creation, without estranging it from its divine “logic”; and the Spirit communicates difference as primordially the gift of the beauty, because his difference within the Trinity is the happiness that perfects desire, the fulfillment of love; for the Spirit comes to rest in the Son, there finding all the joy he seeks, reinflecting the distance between Father and Son not just as bare cognizance, but as delight, the whole rapture of the divine essence.

April 22, 2018

to believe in a spiritually living creation that is full of spiritual life

Here is my own transcription from a part of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast by Jason Micheli “Episode 147 – David Bentley Hart: The Gloves Come Off” posted on April 13, 2018.

[22:55]

Hart: [N.T. Wright is] so hostile to the fact of the first century being Jewish and Greek at once (and Persian). I think, for me, the real proof of this is everywhere where he tries to deal with the issues of spirit and soul. And I think this is sad because that is actually a part of the New Testament that is too often obscured, and it really does grant us access to the way people thought at the time.

Micheli: Say more about that.

[25:00]

Hart: …In the first century, for a Hellenistic Jew, it would be normal to think that every kind of being, every kind of creature, has a body of some kind. All right, angels and demons. But what they possess is not what we have. What we have is a compound of flesh and blood which is animated by a life principle called psyche (soul). Therefore we have what Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, calls the “sōma psychikon.” The angels, however, spirits, have a different kind of body, one that does not consist in flesh and blood, and that is not animated. I mean, one way that you can translate psychikon (because psyche is the same as the Greek anima, it’s a substitute) is to say animated or animal body. Well, what it means is a perishable body because it’s flesh and blood which has to be animated by a life principle, spirit. So it’s necessarily a composite. Whereas a spiritual body, according to Paul, is one that is not flesh and blood (he’s quite clear about this, people don’t like to hear it: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”), and it is spiritual rather than psychical.

Now, most translations hide the whole psyche / pneuma distinction, not only there but throughout the New Testament. It’s an absolutely crucial distinction for most of the New Testament writers. So Paul probably believed that in resurrection, the body of death to which we’re bond is a psychical body of flesh and blood, in the transformation of the cosmos will become like an angelic body, a spiritual body. Flesh and blood will pass away. Soul will pass away. But we’ll become all spirit, like the angels. And I think that, you know, certain church fathers, that’s how they would have read Jesus saying in the world to come we will become as the angels. And you find this in Acts as well. In Acts 23:8 it says that the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection: “mēte angelos mēte pneuma.” That probably means “neither as angel nor as spirit.” Spirit was often used of those creatures, spirit in the language of the time (Hellenistic usage) often just meant beings that don’t have animal bodies. So angels are pneumata [πνεύματα]; we are psychés [ψυχές].

Micheli: You’re grating against a very popular N.T. Wright induced trend in asserting the embodiedness of Paul’s vision of resurrection.

Hart: Yeah, but what does he mean by body? That’s the problem, is he gets it dead wrong. It’s this wildly anachronistic reading that is not Paul’s language. In Acts, for instance, what does Acts say. It’s says, “They don’t believe in resurrection, neither as angel or as spirit.” N.T. Wright in his translation, cavalierly, and to my mind criminally, inserts, you know, writes it this way: “They didn’t believe in resurrection. Neither did they believe in an intermediate state in the form of angel or spirit.” So he has inserted into the text the notion that that reference to angel or spirit is about some transient intermediate state between the body (and this life) and then when it’s raised again and then animated (and that’s how he talks about us). Well, to me, you don’t stick an interpretive phrase of that, well, let’s just say one that distorts the meaning of the text that much, but if nothing else, inflects the meaning without at least a footnote. I think to do that, that’s not even paraphrase. That’s just dishonest.

And the same thing is true in the way he translates 1 Corinthians 15. We have the difference the psychical body (the ensouled body, the animated body) and the spiritual body becomes: “the body animated in a natural way” (which is meaningless) and “the body animated in a spiritual way” (which is contradictory because “animated” is in fact a synonym for “psychikon” and that’s exactly what Paul’s not saying). What Paul’s pretty clearly saying—what anyone who would, say, read Origen would know (or Gregory of Nyssa or anyone else who is more proximate conceptually, culturally, historically, or read Philo), you know, is that he’s talking exactly about the transition from a psychical to a spiritual body.

I think this also explains, if your interested, 1 Peter 3:18-20 where I think the proper way to read that is that Jesus died in the flesh, was killed in the flesh and raised as spirit. That doesn’t mean that—I mean, we tend to think of spirit as disembodied, and that’s not what they mean. For them, spirits had bodies, angels had bodies. In the first century, it was unthinkable that anyone other than God would be bodiless because everything else has to be local. It’s a radically different kind of body. Some might say that it’s composed of the fifth element, that is ether. Others had different theories. But it was like the same matter—whatever that body was, it was like the bodies of the stars which were thought to spiritual intelligences. And many Christians thought that too. That’s way God is called the “Father of the luminaries” in James [1:17].

[31:35]

…Well what does that say, 1 Peter 3:18-20? “Christ died in the flesh, was signed in the flesh, raised as spirit, and thereby was able to visit the spirits in prison”—meaning the angels, and the fallen angels, and the nephilim probably from first Enoch. Now it doesn’t say he visited them in the interval. It says he was able to visit them because he had been raised in a way made him physically, so to speak, transcendent of the conditions that a mere mortal, animal body suffers, that is it can’t move between realms. Now, all of this sounds odd to us now.

Micheli: But it also sounds a lot more clear.

Hart: Yeah, and it’s also correct. So, again, N.T. Wright has produced a translation that, without footnotes, distorts every single one of those verses but also just gets it wrong. I mean, it’s just wrong: demonstrably, objectively wrong.

[49:36]

Micheli: …You’ve already reclaimed a more spiritual understanding of resurrection, away from N.T. Wright.

Hart: I mean. I just think that’s clearly the case, in the text. N.T. Wright is closer to what I think the received picture of the person in the pews might be, you know. But it’s funny. It’s not like Paul is obscure on these points. When he says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.”

Micheli: [Chuckling.] It’s pretty clear.

Hart: It’s not like he’s being coy: “by flesh I mean sinful human nature, and by blood I mean violent propensities.”

Micheli: And to “put on imperishability” is just resuming the body.

Hart: Resuming the body you have but now animated by the, you know, I mean all of that, the whole. Yeah right. The N.T. Wright thing–a “naturally animated body” or a “spiritually animated body”–is his own weird invention. It’s obviously wrong. It doesn’t fit the text.

[50:54]

…The thing to do though, the thing you have to emphasize is that spirit in the first century is not an ethereal privation of body. It is a stronger, more living, more powerful, more indestructible body, a body capable of passing through walls, a body capable of moving between the realm of the terrestrial realm and the realm of spirits. It is fuller a kind of life. It more eminently, more virtually, to use a scholastic language, contains the kind of life we have in this world, but it’s fuller and indestructible. It’s not composite. It’s not made up of an adventitious or extrinsic composite of flesh, blood and soul.

Micheli: Does the New Testament require a more enchanted view of the world than Evangelicals are able to hold? Isn’t that the problem?

Hart: Well, I think a more enchanted view of the world than modern people, I mean, not just evangelicals. All of us who are modern, we recoil from the cosmology of the New Testament because we see only its morphology. That is, well we know that the heavens are not crystalline planetary spheres revolving around the earth, and God’s imperium is literally above it so that obviously, as in the Gospel of John, Jesus literally comes from above. That’s not just metaphorical language. He enters the whole and redeems the whole and conquers the whole cosmos, meaning the sphere of fixed stars (which are full of spiritual intelligences, probably), the planetary spheres, the powers on high, which are spirit, pneumata [πνεύματα], and angels, archons [ἄρχων]. He uses the words “the archon of this world.”

And yet, I think that you don’t need the morphology to believe in a spiritually living creation that is full of spiritual life. You know, I’m something of a panpsychist myself. Not in the modern way, in which, you know, you’re supposed to believe that every atom has a kind of quality called mind. But rather, that everything is founded upon spirit, is full of logos, is full of spiritual realities.

And I think that until, I think that because we can’t think like first century persons, we end up with, well, this whole issue of resurrection, say. How is N.T. Wright or any other evangelical of that sort thinking about resurrection? It’s weirdly dualistic, isn’t it? There’s this body thing that’s animated one way or another. You know, there’s matter; there’s spirit. Spirit would be more ethereal than matter. Matter is somehow more concrete and more living than disembodied or fleshless spirit. It’s just the opposite of the ancient view, which is that the mortal corruptible world is feeble, perishing, thin, ghostly by comparison to the fullness of spiritual reality that sufuses all things, that underlies all things, that transcends all things, into which we are ushered. Resurrection is to be lifted up out of the ghostly condition of being flesh and blood and soul into this vibrant, vivid, indestructible condition of being living spirits in the presence of God who is spirit. And because we don’t think in that way. Because we are condemned to a kind mechanical, bland, boring, dead-matter view of creation, you know, you end up with a need to create a theology that obviously isn’t there in the text. And of course it helps if you know the time, the issues. I wish that more Christians were immersed in the intertestamental literature, immersed in the larger Hellenistic world, realizing that Paul is a Greek too, I mean, in some sense. He’s a Jew, but he’s a Hellenistic Jew, in part of the pagan world that for three centuries had not only lived under pagan rule but had freely and happily, at times not so happily, but at times in the intellectual world, happily borrowed and used and integrated what it had found useful, just as it had done with Persian thought.

Micheli: That’s a good word, especially around Easter.

January 6, 2018

compared to the celebrations we like to hold on Twelfth Night

New Year’s is still a minor observance for us, and nothing to compared to the celebrations we like to hold on Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany, when the last of the Christmas presents are opened, games are played, and the decorations come down from the tree. (I know many Americans think of Christmas as a single day and like to clear away the trappings of the season well before the fifth of January, but that is sheer barbarism, if you ask me, morally only a few steps removed from human sacrifice, cannibalism, or golf.)

—David Bentley Hart

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.”

December 21, 2015

this distance that allows for an endless setting out from and homecoming to the object of attention belongs to beauty

If the realm of created difference has its being for God’s pleasure (Rev. 4:11), then the distance of creation from God and every distance within creation belong originally to an interval of appraisal and approbation, the distance of delight. God’s pleasure—the beauty creation possesses in his regard—underlies the distinct being of creation.

…Within the world, beauty does not merely adorn an alien space, or cross the distance as a wayfarer, but is the true form of that distance, constituting it, as the grammar of difference.

…No instance of the beautiful … can be contained within a dialectical structure of truth, or recognized apart from its aesthetic series; it is always situated in perspectives, vantages, points of departure, but is never fixed, contained, exhausted, or mastered. …Because this distance that allows for an endless setting out from and homecoming to the object of attention belongs to beauty, the questions a theological aesthetics must ponder are what the shape of that distance is, what is its original content, how it is most truly inhabited and disclosed.

…Beauty crosses boundaries. Among the transcendentals, beauty has always been the most restless upon its exalted perch; the idea of the beautiful … can never really be separated from the beauty that lies near at hand. …Beauty traverses being oblivious of the boundaries…. “Crossing these boundaries so forgetfully,” remarks Balthasar, “belongs to the essence of the beautiful and of aesthetics almost as a necessity.” Beauty defies our distinctions, calls them into question, and manifests what shows itself despite them: God’s glory.

David Bentley Hart in The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth.

December 9, 2011

no weight apart from the weight of glory

The things of the senses cannot of themselves distract from God. All the things of earth, in being very good, declare God, and it is only by the mediation of their boundless display that the declaration of God may be heard and seen. In themselves they have no essences apart from the divine delight that crafts them . . . and so have nothing in themselves by which they might divert attention from the God who gives them, no specific gravity, no weight apart from the weight of glory. Only a corrupt desire that longs to possess the things of the world as inert property, for violent or egoistic ends, so disorders the sensible world as to draw it away from the God that sensible reality properly declares; such a desire has not fallen prey to a lesser or impure beauty, but has rather lost sight of corporeal, material, and temporal beauty as beauty, and so has placed it in bondage.

From The Beauty of the Infinite by David Bentley Hart, p. 255. (Not a book I have yet but found the quote on Relocating To Elfland.)

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