One of the more challenging topics I’ve read, written, and talked about in the past few years is the atemporal fall. I get more and more questions about it, so I’m collecting a reading list here that I can build out over time and share easily in response to questions. This concept of an atemporal fall was widespread in the Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian context (the entire background of Jesus and Paul) but has not been prominent within the Latin tradition of theology for a long time. As the piece linked below by Alexander V. Khramov demonstrates, this is largely because Augustine moved over the course of his own lifetime away from the idea of an atemporal fall that he had first learned as a new Christian—rejecting what had been the standard idea in the Greek speaking theological world. Augustine did this for what were apparently theologically-motivated reasons related to his own unique readings of Paul on topics such as original sin (another way in which Augustine shaped theology in the West for long after his lifetime).
Put simply, the atemporal fall is the idea that humanity was created in a heavenly realm of time and space and that the human fall literally caused a reduced form of time and space to come into being. Humanity then also showed up within this fallen world but in a new and reduced form of themselves. Many early church fathers (including Augustine at least for the first part of his career) considered Genesis 1 to be about the eternal creation of God while Genesis 2 moved our cosmic story across the line into the fallen world that we now inhabit. This means that the fall of humanity took place outside of time as we now experience it—therefore “atemporal.”
Calling this concept the “atemporal fall” privileges the relationship of the fall to our present world in terms of time and does this at the expense of space. However, our current world is related to the world from which we fell in terms of both time and space. In fact, a Christian understanding of an atemporal fall must maintain both a spatial and a temporal participation between the fallen world and the eternal creation of God. Without this participation, the idea of an atemporal fall reduces easily to a full dualism or heterodox gnosticism rather than remaining simply a contingent dualism (with actual participation in the life of God throughout all of reality) as we see in the New Testament and the church fathers.
One other reason that it so difficult to speak now of an atemporal fall is that it is entirely incompatible with a physicalist or mechanistic metaphysics (which is really just the blindness or prejudice of refusing to have any metaphysics at all). Our modern secular world of inert material resources that exist only to be manipulated for the sake of progress or commodification (creating more stuff to awaken new consumer desires) cannot be understood as a reality that is ultimately dependent upon a more permanent, substantial and living world. Although modern humans still have an atrophied nous (“the single eye of the heart” that Jesus teaches about or the “intuitive mind” of the Greek philosophers) that can perceive the most substantial, free and alive realities, we only give any attention or respect to what we can see with our frail fleshly eyes and control with muscle or money. For all of these reasons, you are unlikely to hear much about the atemporal fall in our world today.
While on the topic of imponderables, any consideration of an atemporal fall must also posit some version of a corporate and heavenly Adam as well as Jesus Christ. As we read in Paul, Jesus is the second Adam and also the first human to be fully created (or to have displayed the fullness of the divine image for which purpose humans were created). Jesus is also called the head of the entire body of his people. Likewise, Adam is, of course, the source or head of the entire human race. Both figures relate to human history and to all other human persons, to some significant extent, from outside of history. There is much more to consider on these points, but it is beyond the scope of these notes.
Where I first heard of this concept was in fairytales or mythologies. We see this atemporal fall suggested in the bending of our world into its current reduced shape as this took place in Tolkien’s stories with the downfall of Númenor. It shows up in the myths of Atlantis and of the Temple-Garden of Eden sinking into the earth with the great flood. I’ve written about this in several places such as these:
Few authors write about the idea of an atemporal fall outside of fiction and story. The first place that I saw any reference to it in a contemporary nonfiction source was in The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart where he speaks explicitly of time as we know it now being “fallen” and reduced in its form. Even in this book, however, the concept is not developed but simply eluded to. Most other places where I have found this idea talked about are just recordings of conversations between authors and scholars as well as a few articles and blog posts. I’m hopeful that some books coming out in future years will give this more formal attention. If anyone reading these notes and this list has additional resources, please let me know.
The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart (2005).
“The Devil’s March: Creatio ex nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a Few Dostoyevskian Meditations” by David Bentley Hart. Published in Creation “ex nihilo”: Origins, Development, Contemporary Challenges (2017) and Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest (2020).
Torstein Theodor Tollefsen in his chapter “Saint Maximus the Confessor on Creation and Incarnation” from the book Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen.
I am excited about a forthcoming book by Jordan Wood called The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus the Confessor (from the University of Notre Dame Press, publication date not yet finalized but within a year). It promises insight on many topics and possibly this one as well.
The Fall and Hypertime by Hud Hudson (2014). [Recommended by Stephen R. L. Clark (as something he wants to read related to this).]
Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures by Paul J. Griffiths (2014). [Recommended and not yet read by me.]
The Symbolism of Evil by Paul Ricoeur. [Recommended and not yet read by me.]
One final note regarding provenance with this topic:
This claim is properly within the truth domaines of theology, anthropology, metaphysics, myth and poetry.
As for the physical sciences: they do not conflict at all with the concept of an atemporal fall. At the same time, science cannot give us any evidence of it on its own terms.
As for exegesis of scripture: it takes an atemporal fall for granted on every page. It, however, is not something we tend to see as modern readers. One example is Romans 8:19-23. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
P.S. A few of my family members occasionally read and interact with my theological postings on my blog. Shortly after I posted the material above, one of my amazing sisters commented to me elsewhere about the atemporal fall being rather incomprehensible, so I gave this summary a shot:
Dear sister, a distinguished and much-loved Orthodox theologian of the last generation, Olivier Clément, wrote a book called Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition that is probably the best start I could think of for talking about an atemporal fall.
One way to describe the atemporal fall is to say that all of cosmic history in this current fallen world of ours is the result of only one moment or event within the heavenly or eternal time of God’s kingdom life. When the heavenly Adam fell (who was created for the purpose of filling an un-fallen cosmos with life in God’s image and so that the incarnation might take place even without a fall) all of fallen human history unrolled instantly—from the Big Bang until the last moment of biological life anywhere in our cosmos. This means that every part of this contingent story that we are in right now is only incompletely in contact with the true history of humanity’s un-fallen relationship to God. Our fallen history did not destroy us and our world, because, at the instant of our fall, the eternal Son and Word of God joined himself to us even to the point of death. This incarnation shows up in the middle of our fallen time when Mary says yes to God—undoing the human fall in cooperation with God. However, this incarnation and death and resurrection of God are also the “lamb slain from the foundation of the cosmos” (as John says in his Apocalypse). Every moment of cosmic history is therefore the immediate result of two things: 1) Adam’s resistance to life with God and 2) Christ’s commitment to incarnation in the flesh even though humanity resisted life with God and brought death to themselves and their entire world.
Coming at the atemporal fall from another direction, my second best approach would be through the work of a living and also much-loved Orthodox theologian John Behr with a book called John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (now in a 2nd ed.). In this book, John Behr explains how all of the early church fathers understood John the Theologian to be teaching in his gospel that the work of creation by God was only accomplished upon the cross by Jesus Christ from the very foundation or middle of our contingent and fallen time.
“Ah,” I said, sinking back onto my pillows, “that seems like it would be a hard sell among modern physicists.”
“I’m not interested in being a salesman,” said Roland. “My interest isn’t scientiﬁc, after all. I’m just as happy to call that interval between inﬁnite actuality and inﬁnite potentiality the realm of Fairy, or the Dreamtime. I do wonder, though, whether the actualization of a world in the conventional consciousness of any given age might have a retroactive effect. Whether the past is in some sense changing with every new conformation of the cosmos in thought. Or perhaps, it might be better to say, whether the past as we know it, and as it connects to the conventional picture of the present, is changing. I mean, we know that in a sense entanglement is as much a temporal as a spatial inseparability and…” His voice trailed away.
Roland (David Bentley Hart’s beloved dog) speaking to Hart (in the new book Roland in Moonlight):
“I’ll tell you the whole story of our two peoples one day,” he said. “As for your sin—your original sin—I can’t speak to it. It was already something established in your natures before your kind and mine ﬁrst truly met. I know the myths, of course—the Eden myth and the other tales from around the world of the loss of an original beatitude or innocence. But, even if that’s something that actually happened rather than an allegory about something that’s always happening in your kind, then it happened in some other world, some other kind of time. As for this world—this fallen world, this aftermath of that other world—here, in this world, it may be that your feeling of original sin also consists largely in a kind of oblivious memory of your organic past… an ineffable ache of conscience that’s really a kind of organic recollection of all the phylogenic misery and slaughter and blood-soaked attritions by which your species climbed its way out of the mire of purely biochemical existence. Long before your species had even appeared in the world of chronos, the world of the time of death, you were gestating in the womb of nature as a mere stochastic organic possibility, an only remotely likely ﬁnal issue of incalculable ages of violence. And you bear that lineage and that whole physical history as a kind of ontological guilt, a stain deeply imbrued in every cell in your body—written in every strand of your DNA. Every one of you is Cain, the mark of your immemorial guilt indelibly inscribed on each mitochondrion and every cell-wall… Ah, well, so it goes. A delicate blue ﬂower springs up atop a noisome midden, and its fragile, incandescent beauty dazzles us, and we forget all the purulence and waste and dissolution and ceaseless decay from which its exquisite, transient charm was born. That evanescent flicker of enchantment inveigles and beguiles us. But deep down in the cellars of your cerebral cortices your reptile brain still lurks—a serpent, so to speak, perhaps the Serpent of Eden himself—and all the later concrescences of your modular brain are compounded upon that ineradicable ophidian core. And it knows. It remembers, in its cold, cruel, scaly way. And you, of course, my friend, are no blue flower.”
“…Anyway, I wasn’t trying to be a philosopher, or even to tell a complete story. That organic history is only an echo of the spiritual history that preceded it. Your still more original original sin was your departure from the pleroma in the divine aeon through an act of self-assertion—which is to say, your departure from the Dreaming in the wrong way, at the wrong moment. And that’s a fall that happened to all of you as one and to each of you as individuals.”
Saint Gregory of Nyssa (feasted today, January 10) says that the image of God is only seen when every human person is included both at the outset of creation and at the end of time. Here Gregory describes how God’s image applies to the entire human race gathered from across all of fallen history:
In the Divine foreknowledge and power all humanity is included in the first creation; for it is fitting for God not to regard any of the things made by Him as indeterminate. …The entire plenitude of humanity was included by the God of all, by His power of foreknowledge, as it were in one body, and …this is what the text teaches us which says, God created man, in the image of God created He him. For the image is not in part of our nature, nor is the grace in any one of the things found in that nature, but this power extends equally to all the race. …The Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then. …He saw, Who knows all things even before they be, comprehending them in His knowledge, how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals. …For when …the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, because there is no longer anything to be made up in the way of increase to the number of souls, [Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time. [And Paul gives to] that limit of time which has no parts or extension the names of a moment and the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
These excerpts from Gregory’s On the Making of Man (intended to supplement and complete the Hexaëmeron of his older brother Saint Basil) illustrates Gregory’s idea that God created all of humanity at once in the beginning, but that this universal humanity is revealed within fallen time as a multitude of individuals all contributing to the image of God but not manifesting the fullness of that image without each other. Gregory sees all of human history, as we experience it now, to be a result of the human fall which took place with the first creation of all humanity before any individual humans existed. All of humanity is therefore currently participating in both our fall and our creation (both of which were initiated before time itself). Once each person arrives within this fallen history, humanity then be restored to our union with each other and to God, allowing us to once again display the fullness of God’s image as intended from the start (in the first creation, before our fall).
Gregory even says that this movement from the first creation of humanity as a collective whole into a “plenitude” of particular humans could have happened without a fall, in which case we would have become a multitude in whatever way the angels themselves became a great multitude (which process Gregory says is inconceivable to us in our current condition). Once the full number of humans ordained by God has been born within fallen history, the final manifestation of all humanity, transformed with bodies of incorruptibility and united to Jesus Christ as the first fruits of this resurrection life, will mark the fullness and end of history and of time itself as humanity is once again a complete whole as it was initially revealed in the first creation. This way of thinking is far from intuitive for modern people. Here is a more complete sample of the passages expanding these ideas from Gregory (in a slightly convoluted older translation):
In saying that God created man the text indicates, by the indefinite character of the term, all mankind; for was not Adam here named together with the creation, as the history tells us in what follows? Yet the name given to the man created is not the particular, but the general name: thus we are led by the employment of the general name of our nature to some such view as this—that in the Divine foreknowledge and power all humanity is included in the first creation; for it is fitting for God not to regard any of the things made by Him as indeterminate, but that each existing thing should have some limit and measure prescribed by the wisdom of its Maker. [XVI.16]
Now just as any particular man is limited by his bodily dimensions, and the peculiar size which is conjoined with the superficies of his body is the measure of his separate existence, so I think that the entire plenitude of humanity was included by the God of all, by His power of foreknowledge, as it were in one body, and that this is what the text teaches us which says, God created man, in the image of God created He him. For the image is not in part of our nature, nor is the grace in any one of the things found in that nature, but this power extends equally to all the race: and a sign of this is that mind is implanted alike in all: for all have the power of understanding and deliberating, and of all else whereby the Divine nature finds its image in that which was made according to it: the man that was manifested at the first creation of the world, and he that shall be after the consummation of all, are alike: they equally bear in themselves the Divine image. [XVI.17]
…Yet while, as has been said, there is no marriage among them, the armies of the angels are in countless myriads; for so Daniel declared in his visions: so, in the same way, if there had not come upon us as the result of sin a change for the worse, and removal from equality with the angels, neither should we have needed marriage that we might multiply; but whatever the mode of increase in the angelic nature is (unspeakable and inconceivable by human conjectures, except that it assuredly exists), it would have operated also in the case of men, who were “made a little lower than the angels,” to increase mankind to the measure determined by its Maker. [XVII.2]
…God says, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and God created man, in the image of God created He him (Genesis 1:26-27). Accordingly, the Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then. [XXII.3]
…Man, then, was made in the image of God; that is, the universal nature, the thing like God; not part of the whole, but all the fullness of the nature together was so made by omnipotent wisdom. …He saw, Who knows all things even before they be, comprehending them in His knowledge, how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals. [XXII.4]
…For when, as I suppose, the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, because there is no longer anything to be made up in the way of increase to the number of souls, [Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time, giving to that limit of time which has no parts or extension the names of a moment and the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). …So that it will no more be possible for one who reaches the verge of time (which is the last and extreme point, from the fact that nothing is lacking to the attainment of its extremity) to obtain by death this change which takes place at a fixed period, but only when the trumpet of the resurrection sounds, which awakens the dead, and transforms those who are left in life, after the likeness of those who have undergone the resurrection change, at once to incorruptibility (1 Thessalonians 4:17). [XXII.6]
On the Making of Man by Saint Gregory of Nyssa (translated by H.A. Wilson)
[Note: the title refers to this longer post from a couple months ago, and this current post contains some inadequate initial efforts to correct and adjust some of the points that I made in that earlier post.]
Trying to grasp creation and the fall rests on concepts of time and wholeness. With the first day of creation, time is pure and in participation with all of cosmic and human history in their fullness. Within this pure time, all of the seven days are contained within the first day in some sense. Angels were created in this light of the first day with their own relation to God outside of this pure time that was revealed with the unfolding of seven supratemporal days. Some of the angelic council did not want the cosmos and humanity to be created. This angelic fall could not touch the cosmos directly but could touch humanity. The seven days of creation in the first chapter of Genesis tell a story outside of time as we now know it, but this story also unfolds (in a distorted and fallen form) within time as we now experience it. We are still inside of those seven supratemporal days but also profoundly estranged from them and their goodness (except in Christ who brings us back into communion with God’s kingdom and His time).
We might speak of ourselves as currently estranged from the Voice of God that is continually creating the world while what we experience now is a resistance on our own part to God’s shaping of the world. There is no resistance possible to God’s Word, but God allows us, the material called into existence, to resist the hands of the Potter to some degree. Our current cosmos, in its entire history, is a result of our resistance to the shape of God’s Word that we will eventually long to express in our fullness.
The creation story reveals the goodness of life with God as it was provided for the entire cosmos created with humanity (in our wholeness—i.e. all of us) as its crown and its integrating link to life with God. As humanity (all of us) listened collectively to the lies of fallen angels, we disintegrated our union with this pure time, with the cosmos, with each other and with God. All of cosmic history and human history (as we experience and know it now) is a result of this human and cosmic fall and this disintegration of time into a constant loss and death rather than an ever-present fullness of a collective unfolding and maturation in participation with the life of God. All of cosmic and human history as we know it is shattered and estranged from true time and from God—a temporary aberration from the plan that we have pursued (apart from God) and a false history that does not show up anywhere within the seven days of creation as they truly exist and are revealed in Christ.
In this account, Adam and all of us are contained within the sixth day (or the first six days), awaiting the seventh day of God’s rest (with Christ’s incarnation, glorification and offering of Himself in the Eucharist) and the eighth day of new creation (which contains the final accomplishment or fulfillment of all seven days as the “Sons of God” are revealed). Even more, as we are contained within these first six days of creation, humanity is actively resisting creation and allowing it to be subject to malicious powers that are perverting it and holding it back from being finished. With Jesus Christ coming out of the tomb on the day after His Sabbath in the grave, however, we have the eighth day of resurrection proclaimed and revealed. John Calvin, in his commentary on Genesis 17:12, says: “It is probable and consonant with reason, that the number seven designated the course of the present life. Therefore, the eighth day might seem to be fixed upon by the Lord, to prefigure the beginning of a new life.” Calvin was agreeing (if a little tentatively) with many other Christian authors who, from the earliest years, drew this conclusion from the Gospels. Augustine reflected on this theme with a little more enthusiasm that Jesus “suffered voluntarily, and so could choose His own time for suffering and for resurrection, He brought it about that His body rested from all its works on Sabbath in the tomb, and that His resurrection on the third day, which we call the Lord’s day, the day after the Sabbath, and therefore the eighth, proved the circumcision of the eighth day to be also prophetical of Him.”
As Charles Andrew Gottshall put it:
For now the first day of creation is closed off until the last. But the glory of that first day, in all its radiance, purity, and possibility shone again in the Taboric light of Easter morning, the dawning of the last day that casts back its light on that other world that was, that should have been, the world that will be when “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
From “Sergius Bulgakov on Evolution and the Fall: A Sophiological Solution” posted on 1 May 2017 at Eclectic Orthodoxy.
Finally, here are some similar thoughts that Jedidiah Paschall posted to social media yesterday (but even more focused and well-expressed):
There’s hardly a day in my life where I don’t think about the meaning of Genesis 1-2 (nerdy, I know). The more I think on it, the more I read the thoughts of others on it, the more and more I am convinced that Genesis 1 should be read as a promise, or a prophetic outline for the whole of history, and not something that just ‘happened’ in the past. In this sense, human civilization, and the long catastrophic history entailed within it, remains in the 6th Day, and still awaits its consummation in the creation’s great Sabbath. Creation is not a descrete event that happened in the past, but an act, or an occurance in which we are all intimately involved. The big question then, in my mind, is what is the nature of my involvement in this story? Will I look upon the formless and void chaos in this world (or in my own life), and toss up my hands in resignation; or, will I roll up my sleeves and get to work, knowing that when my part is done a true Sabbath awaits me?
Christians claim that we live in a damaged world, although it still reveals to us an undamaged reality beyond and within. Growing up in a Christian home, I lived constantly with the idea that our brokenness is obvious and that all the beauty and wonder of this world speaks to us ceaselessly of a goodness from which we are somehow estranged. Despite this upbringing, it surprised me recently to read that we cannot recognize the fallenness of our world without a revelation given to us from outside our frame of reference. As I’ve grown older, however, I see that I don’t always live as if this world is incomplete. Instead, I act as if this world commands my full allegiance—as if what I can acquire and achieve is all that matters. I treat the world around me as all that I have or as the full picture of reality.
Recently, however, I’ve come to reflect on some Christian claims that place us even more deeply within a tragically reduced creation than I would have previously understood or expressed. I’m considering that even our experience of time has fallen so that the fullness of reality does not fit within our temporal history and even our fall itself is beyond our immediate grasp as a specific point within the timeline of our past. This remoteness of our own fall leaves us with the powerful illusion that we know our own story and the full scope of what exists. In fact, however, we are heavily blinded and “we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). We are easily inclined to live and act as if evil and death are normal and as if there is nothing fundamentally wrong with ourselves and our world. In response, this supratemporal understanding of the fall has challenged me to consider just how separated we are from the fullness of reality—cut off in ways that leave us blinded to who we truly are as God’s children.
Even during this life, God’s presence within a quieted heart allows us to begin seeing the true nature of ourselves and our world. We have God fully revealed to us within human history in the person of Jesus Christ, and he reveals a strange relationship to sin, evil, suffering and death:
If it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.
From The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart, chapter 9.
It is not an easy thing to live as if sin, suffering, evil and death are not a part of the eternal realities of our world. Ultimately, this requires going to the cross and communing there with our loving God “who was slain before the foundations of the world” (Revelation 13:8). We find in this communion a courage and joy that is far from a reliance on great emotions or great ideas. It is a beautiful relationship with what is true and good. This all requires learning to live with our fears and sufferings as part of what we carry now but ultimately as falsehoods that will be overcome by the true gifts that our loving God offers to us with His presence.
C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity and several other places about the ache of joy as a sign to us that we are all clearly “made for another world.” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote stories of a Straight Road kept open only for the Elves so that they could continue to sail their ships along the pathway of the once-flat sea and into what is now our sky. The bending of our world into its current reduced shape took place in Tolkien’s stories at the downfall of Númenor. This shrinking of our current world cut us off from Aman and the realm of the Valar (see “Akallabêth: The Downfall of Númenor” in The Silmarillion for one depiction of this by Tolkien). In the “The Ballad of the White Horse,” G.K. Chesterton writes: “For the end of the world was long ago, / And all we dwell to-day / As children of some second birth, / Like a strange people left on earth / After a judgment day.”
These ideas from Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis (who I have read since childhood) are clearly of a piece with other claims about the fall that I have read more recently as a summary of ancient Christian teaching:
The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death.
…It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.
From “The Devil’s March: Creatio ex Nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a Few Dostoyevskian Meditations” by David Bentley Hart, published in Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest.
Many ancient Christian teachers have said that our entire cosmos exists within a weakened and reduced condition of space and time. Our access to reality is obstructed by our current fallen condition. Time, as we now know it, does not contain all that is true about time in its fullness. Human history and our entire physical universe exists within an incomplete form of time and space. Our fall cut us off from access to our true selves, our true history and from the fullness of the realities to which we still belong but from which we are estranged.
Speaking about the history of how all of this happened is not fully possible within our current temporal categories. Ancient myths and great stories point toward this history over and over in images and language that help us to see beyond our current condition. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien describes the Ainur as the first living beings kindled by Eru Ilúvatar with love for the Flame Imperishable and who therefore had the power of creativity. Ilúvatar taught each of them to sing, and they slowly began to make music on their own and in small groups. Hearing and observing each other singing taught the Ainur more and more about the mind of Ilúvatar, increasing their “unity and harmony.” Eventually, their creator gathered all of the Ainur and told them that he would guide them in a song so great and complex that every one of them would participate together. At first the Ainur were so amazed at this idea, that they bowed before Eru Ilúvatar in silence. When they began to sing, their voices filled the depths and heights of sound “beyond hearing” and filled even the Void so that it “was not void.” Their singing then went through multiple themes with it’s first theme increasing their unity, harmony and their knowledge of Ilúvatar. However, discord was eventually introduced by the voice of Melkor who drew other voices with him so that Ilúvatar needed to introduce a theme that would eventually enfold and resolve the discord of Melkor (a theme involving sacrifice and eucatastrophe). As you read further in Tolkien’s stories, his entire mythic history of Middle Earth is depicted as existing within these powerful but temporary discords of Melkor.
As ancient storytellers and Tolkien understood, any attempt to give a brief history of the cosmos must somehow transcend time as we now experience it. To go to the beginning, requires a look into the life of God. However, to consider God’s life, we can only begin with what we know about our lives together. We all know that admiring something good in another person satisfies us deeply. In the Christian teaching of Imago Dei, to admire goodness in someone else is also to see God revealed in them. Seeing two other persons find this kind of satisfaction in each other likewise invites us to admire each of them in return. This kind of fellowship between three or more people is described in clear and simple terms by C.S. Lewis:
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.
From The Four Loves.
Although not relatable within our terms of finitude and need, Jesus Christ reveals God to us as a timeless community of three persons sharing one perfect nature. Christianity maintains that everything is founded upon the love of these three persons within the life of God. Dante references an ancient classical and Christian tradition with his lines about how it is “love that moves the sun and other stars” (The Divine Comedy, Paradiso, XXXIII.145).
In fact, not only all movement but all existence is a result of God’s love. Everything that exists only exists as a response to this life and love shared between these three persons as they enjoy the same complete goodness in each other but manifest and appreciate this goodness each in their own distinct ways. For its own sake, our cosmos exists in response to this fullness of God’s life and love. He needs no goodness added to his own, but his superabundant goodness calls for our response so that we too might enjoy it.
Before our cosmos began to suffer, however, and even before our place as humans within the cosmos was shaped by God’s superabundance of life and love, many other ranks of free and glorious spirits first came to be in response to God. In this uncorrupted time and space, a community of heavenly life exists continually where mighty living lights move in a dance filled with awe and joy, breathing out their songs around the throne of God. In a passage about the heavenly life at the end of time, C.S. Lewis describes a dynamic that is true from the beginning and that remains unchanged around the throne of God even throughout all the tumult of our human history:
Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.
Again from The Four Loves.
Out of this harmonious life with God, God called forth yet another form of life. Humans were like children wearing garments of light and placed to grow up within a well-watered garden of beautiful plants and animals. Our cosmos was already shaped long before humanity was placed into it, and our cosmos was filled from the start with powerful lights that danced and sang from out of the darkness. These great spirits made up the mighty household of God, and their dances and voices formed the great harmonious movements that exist still as the metaphysical foundation of our cosmos. Remember Dante’s claim (echoing Augustine and many others) that it is “love that moves the sun and other stars.”
Plato taught us this about the stars as well, i.e. that they are moved (as are all things) by unseen realities and that their visible movements (although imperfect like all the rest of the visible world) reveal perfect realities. Alan Scott has an excellent summary of Plato’s teaching on the stars in Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea by (Oxford Early Christian Studies, Clarendon Press, 1994):
True astronomy is not concerned merely with what is seen in heaven but with the understanding of what lies behind what is seen. …To the mind which understood properly, there was true harmony in heaven even if this was not possible for the material bodies of heaven, even as there is exactness in geometry though it is not part of any merely visible diagram. …Just as Plato accepts elements of the latest astronomical research but not the philosophical and religious implications it was sometimes thought to have, so too before his later writings he can accept the popular veneration of the heavens without taking it altogether seriously. In the Republic, Plato does say that the craftsman of heaven, like Daedalus, fashioned the courses of the stars with the greatest beauty possible, and at one point Plato even goes so far as to refer casually to ‘the gods in heaven’, one of which is the sun, and yet he also openly doubts that the visible stars are eternal and immutable.
…The author of [Epinomis] tells us as Plato did that most people regard the stars as lifeless because of their uniform motion, but that this is in fact a clear sign of their intelligence. [As an aside, this claim that uniform motion is a sign of intelligence is brilliantly expanded and defended here by G.K. Chesterton.]
Scripture has many passages where “the hosts of heaven” can just as well be translated with either “stars” or “angels.” What we see as the movements of the stars does ultimately reflect the life of God and his entire creation. However, what we see of everything in this world equally reflects God’s life—from earthly weather patterns to cellular life. But I’ve wandered far away from the storyline again. Back to the arrival of humanity.
Some Christian sages have said that when God made humans amid this great assembly, a few powerful voices in the heavens grew jealous or proud. There is something glorious (imponderable to some degree) about the introduction of humans into creation. Most early Christian teachers took it for granted that God created humanity after the pattern of the second person of the Trinity—the eternal Son of God—as a first step in God’s own incarnation. Our creation was the means for God to participate fully within the life of all his creation. In a way that should be understood as related to our image-bearing and incarnational intent, human life is made to tend, protect and call into harmonious voice all the beauties of the entire cosmos around us. Job says that the stars sang as the earth was made (even before humans were here), and yet humans are placed upon the earth so that we can call upon the stars themselves to sing (as we do in several of the Psalms). There is something mysterious (and easily offensive) about this sequence of events within God’s divine plan.
Some time not too long after God makes humans, we come to a critical and obscure detail within the story. There is a forbidden tree within the garden. This in and of itself is not an issue as it is simply understood by most ancient scholars of the Bible to indicate that humans were made to mature. We were not created fully developed in our moral and relational capacities. This tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not for the young and untested. More messy is the fact that there is a tempter. Some scholars point out that the instructions to “care for the garden” would have been read by ancient people as “guard,” and that our first parents should have prevented the serpent from entering. This may be the case. Alternatively, the snake was part of God’s first household and there was already some discord within that house. In this case, the fallenness of humanity and our world is wrapped up to some degree with a fall of some variety among powerful spirits who were made before us. This point cannot be taken too far, however, because humanity is clearly held responsible for the current condition of our cosmos. We see this in Romans 8:19-23, for example, where we read that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God …for we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”
All Christian theologians agree to a remarkable degree that humanity provides a vital link between God and this new creation (again tied to the incarnational purpose of our creation from the start). David Bentley Hart summarizes it this way: “Human beings—constituting what Maximus the Confessor called the priestly ‘methorios’ (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms—severed the bond between God’s eternity and cosmic time when they fell” (from “The Devil’s March” again). Both pagan and Christian sages throughout history have spoken of each human person as a microcosm of the whole cosmos. Great women and men of prayer and contemplation have repeatedly insisted that there is a powerful connection between the depths of the human heart and the central throne of God. In some sense, each human heart is the center of all that God has made (creating what we call a “place”), and each human heart also touches every other place because each heart stands directly before God. To see God as well as the places that we occupy, requires that what the ancient Greeks called our “nous” (intuitive apprehension) be given a complete and quiet authority within our heart (which is the only location from which the nous can see God and reality directly). To get back to the point (and to repeat once more), all of this means that humanity displays God to the world in some central way and also receives the gifts of God from all of the world surrounding us. We are each a living sacramental or eucharistic center of seeing, receiving and thanksgiving (making our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19). When our relationship to God is broken, it is not just (or even primarily) an individual tragedy. Each human’s broken relationship to God is a cosmic tragedy with extremely real and terrible implications. Likewise, for any human to live in restored communion with God means that all of creation and every fellow human may witness and share, to some degree, a substantial return to the true and intended arrangement of things. Holiness is this participation of particular persons and things with this original purpose of communicating God’s presence.
Whatever might be made of these glorious claims surrounding humanity and the serious implications of our fall, we have a divinely inspired story that clearly makes our fall the essential reason for cosmic suffering. It is tempting to identify the exact temporal sequence of these events. However, it seems that angelic rebellion and the human fall took place before our current time and space were fractured and reduced to an incomplete existence that can no longer contain any of the points in heavenly time at which any of these events took place. In other words, the actual account of our own fall does not fit within our current experiences of time and space. If this is true, then our fall is something that transcends our time. It may have happened in some kind of sequence within a kind of heavenly time, but it can’t be located within earthly time. One quality of a higher dimension in math (to use one easy analogy) is that it can “contain” all of a lesser dimension (as a sphere contains many circles). In an analogous way, every one of our personal lives may be contained within the single event of the human fall. We may each be an active participant in the fall of our first parents.
There are clearly other events within human history that transcend our standard understandings of time according to the biblical accounts. Consider the exodus as well as the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see this kind of supratemporal reality clearly described within this passage about a prayer from the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (“a little book with prayers for the Eucharist, baptism, ordination, and other rites reflecting practice in Rome at the end of the second century”) in Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (32-36):
It is apparent from the wording of the prayers that something more is at work here than recalling ancient history. After reciting the history of salvation leading up to the “night on which he was betrayed,” the prayer continues as follows: “And we sinners make remembrance of his life-giving sufferings, his death, and resurrection on the third day from death and ascension to the right hand of You, his God and Father, and his second glorious and fearful coming.” The key term here is the Greek word anamnesis, usually translated “remembrance,” which in this context means “recall by making present.”
There are parallels between this sense of remembrance and the way the Exodus out of Egypt is remembered in the Jewish Passover. In the Mishnah, the collection of Jewish law from the early third century, it is reported that Rabbi Gamaliel used to say, “…In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written, ‘And you shall tell your son on that day saying, “It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”’ Those who celebrate Pesach are not spectators, they are participants. “It is I who came forth out of Egypt,” says Rabbi Gamaliel. Remembrance is more than mental recall, and in the Eucharist the life-giving events of Christ’s death and Resurrection escape the restrictions of time and become what the early church called mysteries, ritual actions by which Christ’s saving work is re-presented under the veil of the consecrated bread and wine. Speaking of the Christian paschal celebration Origen wrote, “The Passover still takes place today” and “Those who sacrifice Christ come out of Egypt, cross the Red Sea, and see Pharaoh engulfed.” What was once accomplished in Palestine is now made present in the action of the liturgy, as the prayers indicate: “We offer to You O Lord, this awesome and unbloody sacrifice, beseeching You to deal with us not according to our sins.” Liturgy is always in the present tense. The past becomes a present presence that opens a new future.
What is being claimed about the human fall is different then what is being claimed about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our fall did not take place in human history, it was in some sense the start of cosmic history as we know it (that is as a broken and reduced experience). God’s great actions in human history (with Jesus Christ fulfilling all of these) are both historic events and transcendent events. They have a particular place in history but also touch every other point in history (as a transcendent event). Our fall, as I’m explaining it also touches every other point in history, but it cannot also be located within human history as we can locate Jesus Christ.
With these explanations in place, the history of our cosmos can be told briefly:
God’s joyous, free and self-sufficient life as three persons brought many great and diverse spirits to a free yet contingent life so that they could share in and enjoy the life of God.
This household of free and sub-creative spirits rejoiced as God’s life continued to invite more life into newly shaped space and time. God made a beautiful cosmos and then brought humanity into it as those showing forth God’s image within this new realm of spirits whose creation would be fulfilled with the incarnation of God’s Son among them.
God warned his new children that great and mysterious powers were still beyond their reach and that their own pursuit of this knowledge would bring terrible damage, destruction and death.
Evidently, however, some in God’s first household did not simply rejoice at the creation of this second household. They invited humans to forgo growth and maturation, to grasp on their own for goals and ends that they were not yet developed enough to see clearly or to understand. As humans followed these promptings, bitterness, mistrust and fear resulted. As God had warned them, they fled from God and faced death.
Many ancient accounts of the expulsion from the garden note that God was protecting humanity from the tree of life, not punishing them. Our first parents would cause more damage to themselves and their world in their fallen condition if they had been given continued access to the tree of life.
We might say that a reduced cosmic history began here, but we would need to recognize that our entire history to which we have any conceivable access is a reduced history. We lost all access to the kind of time and space in which we were initially created, and our entire story as well as the entire story of our current cosmos became a story characterized by death and suffering from beginning to end.
Taking compassion on us in our fallen condition, God clothed our first parents in garments of skin (with many ancient accounts saying that this covered or replaced their original garments which had been made of light), and God commanded members of his first household to attend and help fallen humanity within the sad confines of our now reduced and limited history.
Our fall, however, left a great vacuum in our hearts and therefore in all of the cosmos so that members of God’s first household could abuse us and our world, claiming it as their own dominion. Humanity followed much of this abuse in our own lust for power as well as in fear, and we neglected our life as God’s image bearers and caretakers more and more for the sake of desperate ventures and false worship.
Amid the ravages and terror of this sad history, Jesus Christ nonetheless fulfilled God’s original intention for us and revealed that God could unite his life even to death and to the grave itself, shattering them from within and offering us the life of God (the fruit of the tree of life as his own body) in communion with our own sufferings and deaths.
After this astounding victory and revelation, Jesus Christ returned to God’s throne where he now offers his own body to us as our bread and where he remains who he was revealed to be upon the Cross: the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world and our bread of life.
God has united himself and his life to us once again from his own real and eternal kingdom. In Jesus Christ, our broken and incomplete cosmos has been opened up and brought back into contact with the life of God.
This history is not over, but we now can see, through Jesus Christ, that the entire history of our cosmos has a beginning and an end that is not currently visible to us, and that all things must truly be made new so that we live now as heavenly citizens but also as future inheritors of a new heavens and an a new earth. United with Christ in his death now as we feed upon his incorruptible body, our own deaths will not hold us captive but will give way to Christ’s death and therefore also to his life.
This exercise has shown me, again, that there are good reasons why these truths are related in great stories and powerful images. They ring shallow and false when reduced to truisms and propositions. Nonetheless, I hope that some of these foolish babblings, for anyone desperate enough to have read them, might have pointed you toward something of the life of God in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Some passages from In Praise of Shadows by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965). This is from he translation by Thomas Harper and Edward Seidensticker.
As a general matter we ﬁnd it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter. The Westerner uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a ﬁne brilliance, but we object to the practice. While we do sometimes indeed use silver for tea kettles, decanters, or saké cups, we prefer not to polish it. On the contrary, we begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina.
…Of course this ‘sheen of antiquity’ of which we hear so much is in fact the glow of grime. In both Chinese and Iapanese the words denoting this glow describe a polish that comes of being touched over and over again, a sheen produced by the oils that naturally permeate an object over long years of handling. …For better or for worse we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them. Living in these old houses among these old objects is in some mysterious way a source of peace and repose.
…Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light, to be taken in at a single glance; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its ﬂorid patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested. The sheen of the lacquer, set out in the night, reﬂects the wavering candlelight, announcing the drafts that ﬁnd their way from time to time into the quiet room, luring one into a state of reverie. …Indeed the thin, impalpable, faltering light, picked up as though little rivers were running through the room, collecting little pools here and there, lacquers a pattern on the surface of the night itself.
Tanizaki and Gerard Manley Hopkins share some ground with the lines “wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil” (from “God’s Grandeur”) as Hopkins words at this point turn toward a positive longing to feel the dark soil with bared feet and even to wear its smudge.
In the passage below from The Great Divorce (end of Chapter 13), the protagonist (who is clearly C.S. Lewis) holds a dialog with his great Teacher (who is clearly George MacDonald). At one point, Lewis says to MacDonald:
In your own books, Sir, you were a Universalist. You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too.
Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions. …Because all answers deceive.
MacDonald goes on to make his case:
If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the ﬁnal state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see—small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope—something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality.
There’s so much to consider in The Great Divorce. I suppose that my first question is actually just what Lewis is seeking to do with MacDonald. It almost seems as if Lewis is seeking to recast his great teacher within this heavenly setting as more of a mystic with regard to “final things” than MacDonald chose to be within his own writings during his lifetime. In any case, Lewis does not seem to come down clearly on the final state of things outside of time other than to make his case that “it’s ill talking of such questions. …because all answers deceive.” In the course of making his case, Lewis makes some big claims with regard to the nature of time, goodness and freedom (to name just a few concepts touched upon).
Without further comment, here is the core of the conversation between Lewis and MacDonald. It picks up just after a generous, glorious, joyfilled female saint has tried her utmost to win over her self-centered and theatrical husband, only to watch him be swallowed up (rather literally) by his own false image of himself:
‘And yet . . . and yet . . . ,’ said I to my Teacher, when all the shapes and the singing had passed some distance away into the forest, ‘even now I am not quite sure. Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his selfmade misery?’
‘Would ye rather he still had the power of tormenting her? He did it many a day and many a year in their earthly life.’
‘Well, no. I suppose I don’t Want that.’
‘I hardly know, Sir. What some people say on Earth is that the ﬁnal loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.’
‘Ye see it does not.’
‘I feel in a way that it ought to.’
‘That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.’
‘The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the ﬁnal power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.’
‘I don’t know what I want, Sir.’
‘Son, son, it must be one way or the other. Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves. I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.
‘But dare one say—it is horrible to say—that Pity must ever die?’
‘Ye must distinguish. The action of Pity will live for ever: but the passion of Pity will not. The passion of Pity, the Pity we merely suffer, the ache that draws men to concede what should not be conceded and to ﬂatter when they should speak truth, the pity that has cheated many a woman out of her virginity and many a statesman out of his honesty—that will die. It was used as a weapon by bad men against good ones: their weapon will be broken.’
‘And what is the other kind—the action?’
‘It’s a weapon on the other side. It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy, whatever the cost to itself. It changes darkness into light and evil into good. But it will not, at the cunning tears of Hell, impose on good the tyranny of evil. Every disease that submits to a cure shall be cured: but we will not call blue yellow to please those who insist on still having jaundice, nor make a midden of the world’s garden for the sake of some who cannot abide the smell of roses.’
‘You say it will go down to the lowest, Sir. But she didn’t go down with him to Hell. She didn’t even see him off by the bus.’
‘Where would ye have had her go?’
‘Why, where we all came from by that bus. The big gulf, beyond the edge of the cliff. Over there. You can’t see it from here, but you must know the place I mean.’
My Teacher gave a curious smile. ‘Look,’ he said, and with the word he went down on his hands and knees. I did the same (how it hurt my knees!) and presently saw that he had plucked a blade of grass. Using its thin end as a pointer, he made me see, after I had looked very closely, a crack in the soil so small that I could not have identiﬁed it without this aid.
‘I cannot be certain,’ he said, ‘that this is the crack ye came up through. But through a crack no bigger than that ye certainly came.’
‘But—but,’ I gasped with a feeling of bewilderment not unlike terror. ‘I saw an inﬁnite abyss. And cliffs towering up and up. And then this country on top of the cliffs.’
‘Aye. But the voyage was not mere locomotion. That bus, and all you inside it, were increasing in size.’
‘Do you mean then that Hell—all that inﬁnite empty town—is down in some little crack like this?’
‘Yes. All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.’
‘It seems big enough when you’re in it, Sir.’
‘And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good. If all Hell’s miseries together entered the consciousness of yon wee yellow bird on the bough there, they would be swallowed up without trace, as if one drop of ink had been dropped into that Great Ocean to which your terrestrial Paciﬁc itself is only a molecule.’
‘I see,’ said I at last. ‘She couldn’t ﬁt into Hell.’
He nodded. ‘There’s not room for her ’ he said ‘Hell could not open its mouth wide enough.’
‘And she couldn’t make herself smaller?—like Alice, you know.’
‘Nothing like small enough. For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their ﬁsts are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.’
‘Then no one can ever reach them?’
‘Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend—a man can sympathise with a horse but a horse cannot sympathise with a rat. Only One has descended into Hell.’
‘And will He ever do so again?’
‘It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not Work that Way when once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.’
‘And some hear him?’
‘In your own books, Sir,’ said I, ‘you were a Universalist. You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too.’
‘Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.’
‘Because they are too terrible, Sir?’
‘No. Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the ﬁnal state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see—small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope—something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope. It is a picture of moments following one another and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise. Neither the temporal succession nor the phantom of what ye might have chosen and didn’t is itself Freedom. They are a lens. The picture is a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem (or, perhaps, than any mystic’s vision) that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn’t Universalism do the same? Ye cannot know eternal reality by a deﬁnition. Time itself, and all acts and events that fill Time, are the deﬁnition, and it must be lived. The Lord said we were gods. How long could ye bear to look (without Time’s lens) on the greatness of your own soul and the eternal reality of her choice?’
Words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest.
…The moment we single out and emphasize the suggestions as we have done here they become unreal; and we, too, become unreal — specialists, word mongers, phrase finders, not readers. In reading we have to allow the sunken meanings to remain sunken, suggested, not stated; lapsing and flowing into each other like reeds on the bed of a river.
…Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations — naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today — that they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages. …A word is not a single and separate entity, but part of other words. It is not a word indeed until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other, although, of course, only a great writer knows that the word “incarnadine” belongs to “multitudinous seas.”
…Think what it would mean if you could teach, if you could learn, the art of writing. Why, every book, every newspaper would tell the truth, would create beauty. But there is, it would appear, some obstacle in the way, some hindrance to the teaching of words. For though at this moment at least a hundred professors are lecturing upon the literature of the past, at least a thousand critics are reviewing the literature of the present, and hundreds upon hundreds of young men and women are passing examinations in English literature with the utmost credit, still — do we write better, do we read better than we read and wrote four hundred years ago when we were unlectured, uncriticized, untaught? Is our Georgian literature a patch on the Elizabethan? Where then are we to lay the blame? Not on our professors; not on our reviewers; not on our writers; but on words. It is words that are to blame. They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. Look again at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA; poems more lovely than the Ode to a Nightingale; novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, by ranging hither and thither, by falling in love, and mating together. It is true that they are much less bound by ceremony and convention than we are. Royal words mate with commoners. English words marry French words, German words, Indian words, Negro words, if they have a fancy. Indeed, the less we enquire into the past of our dear Mother English the better it will be for that lady’s reputation. For she has gone a-roving, a-roving fair maid.
Thus to lay down any laws for such irreclaimable vagabonds is worse than useless. A few trifling rules of grammar and spelling are all the constraint we can put on them. All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live — the mind — all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think and to feel before they use them, but to think and to feel not about them, but about something different. They are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious. They do not like to have their purity or their impurity discussed. If you start a Society for Pure English, they will show their resentment by starting another for impure English — hence the unnatural violence of much modern speech; it is a protest against the puritans. They are highly democratic, too; they believe that one word is as good as another; uneducated words are as good as educated words, uncultivated words as cultivated words, there are no ranks or titles in their society. Nor do they like being lifted out on the point of a pen and examined separately. They hang together, in sentences, in paragraphs, sometimes for whole pages at a time. They hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is their nature to change.
…And it is because of this complexity that they survive. Perhaps then one reason why we have no great poet, novelist or critic writing to-day is that we refuse words their liberty. We pin them down to one meaning, their useful meaning, the meaning which makes us catch the train, the meaning which makes us pass the examination. And when words are pinned down they fold their wings and die. Finally, and most emphatically, words, like ourselves, in order to live at their ease, need privacy. Undoubtedly they like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them; but they also like us to pause; to become unconscious. Our unconsciousness is their privacy; our darkness is their light. …That pause was made, that veil of darkness was dropped, to tempt words to come together in one of those swift marriages which are perfect images and create everlasting beauty. But no — nothing of that sort is going to happen to-night. The little wretches are out of temper; disobliging; disobedient; dumb. What is it that they are muttering? “Time’s up! Silence!”
On April 29, 1937, as part of their Words Fail Me series, BBC broadcast a segment that survives as the only recorded voice of Virginia Woolf. This lecture was eventually edited and published in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays in 1942, a year after Woolf’s death, with the title “Craftsmanship.”
You could say we’re professional descendants. …You see, what no one ever realized until about two hundred years ago is that The Nice and Accurate Prophecies was Agnes’s idea of a family heirloom. Many of the prophecies relate to her descendants and their well-being. She was sort of trying to look after us after she’d gone.
From Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.