a mirror of infinite beauty but as glimpsed through the veil of death

The Christian should see two realities at once—one world, as it were, within another. One, the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, gandure and dreariness, delight and anguish, and the other, the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply nature but creation, an endless sea of glory radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty but as glimpsed through the veil of death. It is to see creation in chains but beautiful as in the beginning of days.

…Whether or not one believes in such glory or has faith in its final advent or can in fact see it even now through the veil of death and our estrangement from God (though I suspect that all of us see it at times whether our internal dispositions permit us to recognize what we see or not), one should be able to grasp that it is not a glory immediately revealed in cosmic or human history but is rather one that appears before, alongside, within and beyond that history, always present yet also for now deferred and so visible to us only through a glass darkly. This glory is not simply the hidden rationality of history but a contrary history that pervades and that will finally overwhelm the world of our fallenness. It is not the sublime or sacred logic of nature but what shines through the promise of nature’s loveliness, a beauty of which nature as we now know it is only a spectral remnant or a delightful foretaste.

The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart. [Transcribed from the audible book version with my own punctuation.]

able to keep us born aloft above an abyss of immense historical oblivion …capable of becoming just about anything, and that may amount to a kind of cultural genius

[15:32] This kind of abrupt but total adoption of another cultural identity—even if little more at times than a sort of fantastic version of that identity—is something of which Americans are sometimes uniquely capable. Perhaps this is because to be American is to be the deracinated child of some other land or people or several other lands and peoples. Our own national identity is quite often a sort of bright, garish, fabulous surface that we spread thinly over forgotten depths. Our national narrative is essentially an idea, never fully realized, of course, but able to keep us born aloft above an abyss of immense historical oblivion. To be truly American in the most extreme way would be to be a kind of Proteus, capable of becoming just about anything. And that may amount to a kind of cultural genius. I’m not criticizing it. [16:37]

[20:56] This is after all a chief danger America poses to all cultures alongside the promises it makes. It is not merely a place but also an ideology. It’s not just a physical landscape much less an ensemble of shared memories and legends. It’s a nation, more constructed than cultivated, built around a political and social project always somewhat in flux but also more or less relentlessly oriented toward a future generated out of its own native ideals and values rather than out of any traditions it might have inherited from the past lines that its peoples left behind in coming here. Moreover, it intends the future not only for itself but also, in a distant and inevitable sense, for peoples everywhere. This is the great experiment of a democratic Republic. And in that sense American is not only an ideology but something, at times, for some, approaching a religion with its own sacred writ, its founding fathers, its radiant escatolgocial visions, its hymns and prayers and benedictions. And it has its special national values, many of which, …being essentially Libertarian in form (in the American sense of Libertarian), are at times rather hard to reconcile with aspects of the gospel that seem fairly foundational. But it’s a stupendous and beguiling reality as well—enormous and seductively grand and gloriously improbable. [22:28]

[34:19] America has a singular power for refashioning things in its own image and to do so with an almost irresistible energy. It’s part of the appeal and, for much of the world, part of the terror that America represents. [34:34]

[35:10] For good, America’s admirable and wonderful ethnic diversity and pluralism. …On the bad side, America’s idolatrous adoration and sanctification of free markets, the really disgraceful dereliction of responsibility for social welfare that this does perpetuate to the justifiable distaste of the rest of the developed world. One really does have to live in an American bubble not to see how bad it is. [36:04]

[36:27] In a sense the great dream or romance of America is the prospect of a people without a history. A humanity that has, as none before it ever did, escaped the prison of memory. Hence, though there is nothing like a distinctive American civilization, perhaps. There definitely is a distinctive American Christianity. It tends to be something fluid, scattered, fragmentary, fissile, either mildly or exorbitantly heretical. But it can nevertheless justly be called the American religion, and it’s a powerful creed. It’s for one thing a style of faith lacking admittedly in beautiful material forms or coherent institutional structures not by accident but essentially. Its inexpressiveness in the civic form, I mean of just beautiful civic spaces, is a consequence not simply of cultural privation or frontier simplicity, of modern utilitarianism or some lingering Puritan reserve toward ecclesial rank and architectural ostentation but also a profound and radical resistance to outward forms. It is in its purest form—which we’ve seen flare up at various times in the history of the country—its Great Awakenings so to speak—a religion of the book, private revelation, oracular wisdom, even emotional rapture, sometimes wonderful emotional rapture. It’s not one of tradition, hierarchy or public creeds.

Even where it creates intricate institutions of its own, creates large temples tends to do so on its own terms in a void, in a cultural and ideally physical desert at a fantastic remove from all traditional sources of authority or historical validity or sometimes even good taste. Probably, Mormonism is an example. It just couldn’t happen anywhere else. New religions begin, they don’t begin like that, except in America: I mean, just overturn the entire universe and start again from the beginning.

In one sense, this isn’t at all surprising. American was born in a flight from the Old World’s thrones and altars, the corrupt accommodations between spiritual authority and worldly power, and the confusion of reverence for God with servility before princes. As a political project in its own right, the United States was the first Western nation explicitly founded on principles requiring no official allegiance between religious confession and secular government. We tend to forget, we’re the first layiscist nation.

Even if this had not been so, the ever great religious heterogeneity of America over the course of its history would surely sooner or later have made such an alliance absurdly impractical, and so in fact America was established as the first truly modern nation, consciously the first to dissociate its constitutional order from the political mythologies of a long and disintegrating Christendom and the first predominantly Christian country to place itself under, at most, God general providential supervision but not under the command of any of His officially recognized lieutenants. The nation began, one could be argued, from a place that other nations had not yet reached, and yet, when one considers the results of this odd apocalyptic liberty from history, it’s rather astonishing because, though it arose out of the end of Christendom, it somehow avoided the religious and cultural fate of the rest of the modern West. Far from blazing the trail into the post-Christian future, American went quite a different way, down paths that no other Western society would even tread or even know how to find. Whereas European society, in a varying speed but fairly uniformly, experienced the end of Christendom simultaneously as the decline of faith—as the church went, so one’s belief—in American the opposite happened. And here the paucity of institutional mediations between the transcendent and the imminent went hand in hand with the general, largely formless, and yet utterly irrepressible intensification of faith: rather than an exhaustion of religious longing, it’s revival, rather than a long nocturnal descent into disenchantment, a new dawning of early Christianity’s elated expectation of the Kingdom.

Now admittedly, I’m being overly general again. Just about every living religion has found some kind of home here bringing along with whatever institutional supports it could fit into its luggage. Many such creeds have managed to preserve the better parts of their integrity, and I’m not doubting that. …Still, I would argue, with a little timeridy perhaps, such communities exist here as displaced fragments of other spiritual worlds, embassies from more homogeneous religious cultures, and it is from those cultures that they derive their cogency. They’re beneficiaries of the hospitable and capacious indeterminacy of American spirituality but not its direct expressions. The form of Christianity most indigeous to America is one simultaneously peculiarly disembodied and indomidably vigorous. And its unity is one of temperament rather than of confession. At its purest, in fact, it strives to be free of memory and so of anxiety, towards a state of almost perfect timelessness apart from human affairs where God and the soul can meet and speak and affirm one another. Evangelicalism, for both good and ill, is the purest expression of this faith. It can lead to an absolutely invincible faith. It can lead also to absolutely invincible intellectual narrowness. Both things have to be taken into account.

Moreover, some forms of American Evangelical culture were not lacking tradition so much as cordially opposed to it on principal. What is tradition, after all, but man made history, and what is history other than exile from paradise? What need does one have of tradition when one has the Bible, that eternal love letter from Jeus to the soul, inerrant, unambiguous, uncorrupted by the vicissitudes of human affairs.

I actually have a great admiration for this, strange to say, at times. Not always—as I say, that’s a matter of taste. Joel Osteen would try the patience of anyone. But I mean in its most natural, organic and genuinely Christian expression, and with the great generosity of soul that accompanies it, still it assumes at times extreme emotive forms of total and unsullied reverie—a pure present of a beautiful world in which ingenious outcries and gestures bring forth instantly succor and substance. At its most intensely fundamentalist, so precipitous is its flight from the gravity of history into that Edenic eschatological rapture that it reduces all of cosmic history to a few thousand years of terrestrial existence and the whole of the present to a collection of signs urgently pointing towards the world’s imminent ending. [44:25]

[49:34] America …is a tireless and uncontainable engine of cultural transformation.

[51:25] So often the case within American religious movements, [they are] largely constituted by an imagined history in place of real history and a religious ideology in place of a living tradition.

Note: transcription of my own from portions of David Bentley Hart’s “Orthodoxy in America and America’s Orthodoxies.” This lecture was posted 2 Oct 2017 by The Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University (The 2017 Orthodoxy in America Lecture, Fordham University). This lecture was also printed as an essay in the book Theological Territories.

Jesus’ own mind was the defining locus of humanity’s capacity to hear and obey the historical summons of God

In other words, the Old Testament and the redemptive work of Christ are not related simply by way of objective semantic reference, but also through the living subjective experience of the Redeemer—Jesus’ own understanding of Holy Scripture. The conjunction of the Sacred Text and the redemptive event was originally discerned in the active, self-reflective understanding (phronesis) of Jesus of Nazareth, who heard in the words of the Hebrew Bible the Father’s personal summons to obedience. Jesus’ own mind was the defining locus of humanity’s capacity to hear and obey the historical summons of God.

…Divine revelation—God’s Incarnate Son included—is available to us only through the specific men and women in whose lives the revelation took place. This fact is most obvious in the Sacred Writings. Our access to the events of Sinai, for instance, comes to us through Moses and the myriad authors, editors, and scribes—Jewish and Christian—who transmitted the experience and content of what took place in the Exodus and the Sinai encounter. Likewise, our historical access to Jesus, the Son of God, comes through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and, prior to them, through Peter and Paul and the congregations to which they and their companions ministered. In short, none of this revelation is available to us except through that corporate, historical body: Israel/ the Church.

…For this reason I have always wondered about the adequacy of the expression solus Christus (“Christ alone”). Christ is, in fact, never alone. God’s Son did not simply show up here one day. He came to us through a believing Mother (whose consent in faith was absolutely essential to the event of the Incarnation), and He gathered around Him disciples and apostles, whom He commissioned to evangelize the nations. In the Bible we hardly ever find Jesus alone. He stands always with the saints. We know our Lord—and, in the strict sequence of history, He is certainly our Lord before He is my Lord—through the experiences and writings of the saints.

…Thus, the experience of the saints is essential to the matter and form of the revelation. The Church—the body of the believers, the saints—pertains to the very substance of the Gospel. Those who mediate the Good News are an integral component of the Good News. This is the reason the Creed includes “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” within its articles of belief. It is an extraordinary thing to reflect that God reveals Himself to us through the responsive experience of others who preceded us. Their Spirit-given response to God’s revelation became a component of the revelation. Consequently, it is crucial not to mute the historical quality—the sequential and transmitting process—of the revelation. When we speak of the historical, factual nature of revelation and redemption, we mean something very clear and definite: Certain historical events actually constitute the substance of revelation and redemption. Redemption and revelation are identical to those events.

…With respect to the second meaning of “time” (chronos), the aforesaid events took place sequentially, in the formal process of a Tradition (paradosis). They were transmitted—and in the Spirit-given memory of the Church, the very historical identity of the Church, continue to be transmitted—in a specific historical, accumulative sequence; revelation and redemption are chronometric. All of sacred theology, including the theology of salvation, comes through salvation history. It is essential to the Christian faith to insist that at absolutely no point do revelation and redemption lose their historical quality.

From Patrick Henry Reardon’s book Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption (Volume 1 of 3: The Incarnate Word).

first thing Jesus did when the Resurrection life came surging into his body

What, however, was the first thing Jesus did when the Resurrection life came surging into his body? How did he mark the moment in which the history of the human race stopped, suddenly, and went in a different direction? The simplest and plainest thing imaginable: he reached up, pulled the kerchief from his face, folded it, and set it aside, as though it had been a napkin used at breakfast. Those wounded hands, from which every grace would flow into the church until the end of the world, were first employed in a simple household task: folding a kerchief. When Jesus folded that kerchief—his first action on rising from the dead—was the deed intentional? Perhaps so. He may have done it very deliberately, for the purpose of leaving a tenacious clue for those who might inquire what happened in the tomb. On the other hand, maybe not. The folding of the kerchief may have been completely unconscious. I do not find this hard to believe. The universal Christ, the eternal Word in whom all things subsist, was still the same Jesus to whom an act of elementary neatness came naturally.

…The risen Lord was the same particular person his friends had always known. He had just returned from the realm of hell, where he trampled down death by death. He was on the point of going forth as a giant to run his course. He was about to begin appearing to his disciples, providing them with many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. Nonetheless, he was still the same person, the same man, whose instinctive habits remained identical. He paused a moment to do what a deep, subconscious impulse told him should be done, what his mother had always taught him to do. He politely folded the kerchief and set it aside, and only then did the Lion of Judah stride forth to bend the direction of history and transform the lives of his fellow human beings.

From The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon.

engaged with existence in its fullness

If we reflect that prayer is the highest human activity—the defining purpose of human existence and the goal of human destiny—we should say that Jesus’ prayer reveals more about him as a human being than anything else he did.

…In prayer a human being is engaged with existence in its fullness. First, when a person prays, he represents the whole created order, of which he is the conscious, self-reflective part. It is in the prayer of human beings that creation becomes conscious of its relationship to God. Man is the thinking part of the cosmos. In the entire material world, the only being that even thinks to pray is man. Human thought is the only place where the cosmos is self-reflective. Second, when someone prays, he represents history, which has bequeathed to him the very language he uses to speak and to think. To pray is to take an heir’s possession—by language—of all that has transpired during man’s existence in this world. We are no more able to separate ourselves from the time of human history than from the space of the created order.

From The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon.

subtlety and obedience

The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon (excerpts from chapter 5):

By the time the four gospels were composed, it is safe to say that probably nobody was certain of the actual sequence of all the events in Jesus’ life. It was not thought to be important. Other considerations, consequently, determined the order in which these stories were handed down in the church’s catechesis (based on the apostles’ preaching) and later recorded (in the four gospels).

…When the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism, something changed. It was an event, with a before and after. Of course, Jesus already was conscious of himself as God’s Son (cf. Luke 2:49), but this new experience at his baptism was decisive; it created, in his life, a then and now. He grew, he increased, through this experience; and, when he went through it, his family and friends recognized that something truly unique had happened to him. Indeed, they were disturbed by his new behavior.

…No one else in the world could read the prophecy as Jesus did, claiming complete and internal ownership of it. Luke implies that his hearers in the synagogue sensed the difference, inasmuch as “the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on him.”

…Like the preceding sign, this one involves no physical contact by Jesus. But we do detect another common trait appearing in both signs; namely, obedience to a command: “Fill the water jars with water” (John 2:7) and “Go your way” (4:50). Disobedience to these commands, we presume, would mean no miracle! Exactly the same traits—subtlety and obedience to command—characterize the third sign described by John, the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda.

hope and history rhyme

From the chorus at the end of “The Cure at Troy,” in Seamus Heaney’s translation of “The Philoctetes” by Sophocles:

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.

to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for

Enjoying the grand sweep of Tolkien’s vision as I read aloud to my kids:

“And doubtless the good stone-work is the older and was wrought in the first building,” said Gimli. “It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”
“Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,” said Legolas. “and that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.”
“And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,” said the Dwarf.
“To that the Elves know not the answer,” said Legolas.

[Legolas speaking, later in the chapter:] “In that hour I looked on Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his will, had he taken the Ring to himself. Not for naught does Mordor fear him. But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron; for is he not of the children of Lúthien? Never shall that line fail, thought the years may lengthen beyond count.”

[Gandalf speaking, later in the chapter:] “We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless–as we surely shall, if we sit here–and know as we die that no new age shall be.”

A few unconnected quotes from chapter 9 of book V in The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.

apparently contradictory and without point

From the Bonds of Imperfection by Oliver O’Donovan (a potent exposition of John’s Apocalypse):

As a scroll, it represents history; as a sealed scroll, its contents are unintelligible. So the prophet presents his problem: how can the created order which declares the beauty and splendor of its creator be the subject of a world history, the events of which are apparently contradictory and without point? Only if history can be shown to have a purpose can the prophet’s tears be wiped away and the praise of the creation be resumed.