When Jesus taught that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood many of his disciples walked with him no more. Many of his teachings and actions were strange and unsettling. In a word, uncanny. Rudolf Otto similarly described the Holy as a numinous mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Something radically other. Flannery O’Connor evoked dramatic responses to the uncanny in her fiction through narratives of shocking violence. As much as it unsettles and disturbs, the uncanny also has remarkable power to provoke new ways of thinking and conversion.
Image from the PBS documentary “Flannery” (2021) by Kathleen Judge.
There are a lot of reasons people rejected Jesus. People disagreed with his teachings, his claim to divine sonship. They worried he would upset the religious and social order. But one of the reasons for rejecting him that I find especially interesting is that some of his teachings were just strange. And disturbingly so. I think the best example of this is in John chapter 6.
“’I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.’ The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.’ These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum. Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can understand it?’ When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, ‘Does this offend you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. And He said, ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.’ From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” (John 6:51-66)
This is one of Jesus’ teachings that I’d put in the category of the uncanny. The uncanny is something that is strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way. Part of the problem was that Jesus was making great claims about himself:
“The Jews then complained about Him, because He said, ‘I am the bread which came down from heaven.’ And they said, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, ‘I have come down from heaven’?’” (John 6:41-42)
Who does this man think he is? That was a common criticism. But it was the other part that made even his disciples start to turn away. ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?’ And Jesus doubled down: ‘Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life’. What a strange saying! They called it a ‘hard saying’, difficult to understand. I find this particular rejection fascinating because it’s not like Jesus hadn’t demanded difficult things before or taught things that were difficult to understand. He taught in parables and had required disciples to leave their families for his sake. But it was in this case especially that ‘many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more’.
There are other examples of the uncanny: strange and disturbing things in Jesus’ ministry. A couple that come to mind are Jesus casting the legion of demons into the herd of swine where the people ‘asked Him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear.’ (Luke 8:37) Also when Jesus cursed a fig tree (Mark 11:12-14). In all these cases it’s possible to give a rational explanation but the rational aspects are not immediately apparent and they certainly weren’t apparent to the people experiencing them in the moment. These episodes seemed quite strange and unsettling.
The uncanny side of Jesus reminds me of the ideas of two religious writers: Rudolf Otto and Flannery O’Connor. I think these two have a lot in common actually. Both are fascinated by the uncanny.
Rudolf Otto lays out his theory in his book The Idea of the Holy. Otto explains the holy as a ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’: a great mystery that both fascinates and terrifies. Another term for it is the ‘numinous’, something mysterious or awe-inspiring. One way I like to think about this is that the holy is radically other.
This is one primary meaning of the Hebrew קָדוֹשׁ (qadosh) in the Hebrew Bible. The Lord God stands separate and apart. This radical otherness is a useful way to understand the often alien-sounding Holiness Code of the Torah. There’s a strangeness to God that Israel is made to remember through ritual.
In the apocalyptic visions of both the Old and New Testaments we see prophets confronting the strangeness and otherness of God as they struggle to describe their uncanny visions. For example in Ezekiel:
“Now as I looked at the living creatures, behold, a wheel was on the earth beside each living creature with its four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the color of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they moved, they went toward any one of four directions; they did not turn aside when they went. As for their rims, they were so high they were awesome; and their rims were full of eyes, all around the four of them. When the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, because there the spirit went; and the wheels were lifted together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.” (Ezekiel 1:15-21)
What a fascinating and strange vision! My response to this is that it is intentionally and quite effectively mind-bending. Whatever Ezekiel experienced it was something very different and it should challenge our assumptions about the way things are and expand our imagination of what is possible.
And this same divine otherness carries over into the New Testament. A crucial feature of Christian theology, one that’s easy to forget, is that Jesus is the same God as in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is the same God who the Israelites had to approach so carefully in their holiness code. And even though Jesus reveals God in bodily form in a more accessible way. With the veil taken away, as Paul says (2 Corinthians 3:12-18), sometimes some of that otherness and strangeness still comes through in ways that upset and disturb his disciples.
In my opinion Flannery O’Connor captures this uncanny otherness of God perfectly in her fiction. Her ‘gospel’, so to speak, is well stated in the title to her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, which is taken from Matthew 11:12 – ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.’ For O’Connor acts of God and of the Holy Ghost are shocking, dramatic, and overpowering. She provokes this response in her fiction through violence. Reading an O’Connor story can be quite emotionally taxing. In fact, my wife recently read “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and it gave her nightmares. Literally. These stories are meant to be impactful, revelatory, and theophanous.
The O’Connor story that I think best demonstrates her use of the strange and uncanny is ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost’. This story is classic O’Connor and I really encourage everyone to read it. It’s hilarious and has her classic clash between social classes and between urban and rural. For present purposes I’ll just focus on one part of the story. In the story the main character, a young girl, goes to a county fair with her older cousins. Her cousins attend a ‘freak show’ that she’s not allowed to go to, but that her cousins tell her about afterwards.
“It had been a freak with a particular name but they couldn’t remember the name. The tent where it was had been divided into two parts by a black curtain, one side for men and one for women. The freak went from one side to the other, talking first to the men and then to the women, but everyone could hear. The stage ran all the way across the front. The girls heard the freak say to the men, ‘I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.’ The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal and neither high nor low, just flat. ‘God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.’ Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over onto the women’s side and said the same thing.”
“The child felt every muscle strained as if she were hearing the answer to a riddle that was more puzzling than the riddle itself. ‘You mean it had two heads?’ she said.”
“’No,’ Susan said, ‘it was a man and woman both. It pulled up its dress and showed us. It had on a blue dress.’”
“The child wanted to ask how it could be a man and woman both without two heads but she did not. She wanted to get back into her own bed and think it out and she began to climb down off the footboard…”
“She lay in bed trying to picture the tent with the freak walking from side to side but she was too sleepy to figure it out. She was better able to see the faces of the country people watching, the men more solemn than they were in church, and the women stern and polite, with painted-looking eyes, standing as if they were waiting for the first note of the piano to begin the hymn. She could hear the freak saying, ‘God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute hit,’ and the people saying, ‘Amen. Amen.’”
“’God done this to me and I praise Him.’”
“’He could strike you thisaway.’”
“’But he has not.’”
“’Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God’s temple,
don’t you know? Don’t you know? God’s Spirit has a dwelling in you, don’t you know?’
“’If anybody desecrates the temple of God, God will bring him to ruin and if you laugh, He may strike you thisaway. A temple of God is a holy thing. Amen. Amen.’”
“’I am a temple of the Holy Ghost.’”
“The people began to slap their hands without making a loud noise and with a
regular beat between the Amens, more and more softly, as if they knew there was a child near, half asleep…”
Notice how O’Connor portrays this spectacle as a kind of reverent religious experience. “The men more solemn than they were in church, and the women stern and polite.” The carnival atmosphere is transmuted into something holy. Later, when the girl attends the Catholic Mass, the process is reversed and the holy is transmuted into the carnival. Or at least the two are merged to highlight their similarities.
“The chapel smelled of incense. It was light green and gold, a series of springing arches that ended with the one over the altar where the priest was kneeling in front of the monstrance, bowed low. A small boy in a surplice was standing behind him, swinging the censer. The child knelt down between her mother and the nun and they were well into the ‘Tantum Ergo’ before her ugly thoughts stopped and she began to realize that she was in the presence of God. Hep me not to be so mean, she began mechanically. Hep me not to give her so much sass. Hep me not to talk like I do. Her mind began to get quiet and then empty but when the priest raised the monstrance with the Host shining ivory-colored in the center of it, she was thinking of the tent at the fair that had the freak in it. The freak was saying, ‘I don’t dispute hit. This is the way He wanted me to be.’”
In both settings – at the fair and at Mass – spectators are witnesses to something strange and uncanny. And at the Mass we see enacted the very thing that Jesus said that so disturbed his disciples: the preparation of his flesh and blood, to be consumed by the faithful. In both settings the usual categories and boundaries that we use to understand the world break down. Categories and boundaries like male and female, bread and flesh, wine and blood, God and human. It’s not that these categories and boundaries aren’t real. But with these uncanny incidents we’re forced to see things in a new and jarring way that shakes us up. This is what the Holy Ghost does in O’Connor’s theology.
Sometimes revelation from God is shocking and strange. For some, Jesus was too strange. “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” But others among his disciples persisted.
“Then Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also want to go away?’ But Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” (John 6:67-69)
It’s interesting that in other passages of scripture Jesus says that this understanding – that he was the Christ, the Son of the living God – did not come from flesh and blood but rather from the Father (Matthew 16:17). What Peter and the Apostle came to know and testify was not something that was continuous with normal experience and expectations. It was discontinuous and came from outside the normal frame of events.
I suspect that this may be the value of the strange and uncanny features of the religion. There are things that break up the normal flow of things and force us to stop and think more carefully and to think in fundamentally new ways. That seems to me like the only way something like a real conversion could ever be possible. We’re usually carried along a habitual stream from one moment to the next with each action following predictably from our prior actions, according to our ingrained behavior. How then would conversion even be possible? Something has got to interrupt the flow, knock us into a different plane, and get us to see things differently. And what better way to do this than something truly unpredictable, strange, and uncanny? Some will recoil at the revelation and say, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” But others will convert and say, “We have come to believe.” There is real transformative value and opportunity in Christ’s uncanny teachings. So when we see them we should pay attention.
I love the Apostles’ Creed. If you ask me for a one-paragraph statement of what I believe, most fundamentally, this is it. Not just what I believe about religion, but what I believe most fundamentally about everything; about life, existence, and all of reality.
I love the Apostles’ Creed. If you ask me for a one-paragraph statement of what I believe, most fundamentally, this is it. Not just what I believe about religion, but what I believe most fundamentally about everything; about life, existence, and all of reality. The Apostles’ Creed gets right to the core of the most fundamental truths of all of it. It’s not scripture but a distillation of the truths of scripture that directs us toward the scriptures. Cyril of Alexandria (375 – 444) said that this “synthesis of faith” was made to accord with “what was of the greatest importance from all the Scriptures, to present the one teaching of the faith in its entirety. And just as the mustard seed contains a great number of branches in a tiny grain, so too this summary of faith encompassed in a few words the whole knowledge of the true religion contained in the Old and New Testaments.” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. illum. 5, 12: PG 33, 521-524.) Here is the text of the Creed:
“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic [universal] church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.”
What’s fascinating to me about this is that it’s not only a set of propositions, though it is partially that. It’s also a story. The Gospel is a grand story and we find our stories by making it our own. On the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit filled the Apostles and gave them utterance Peter told this story:
“’Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know—Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it… His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear… Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2:22-24,31-32,36-38)
This is the Gospel. This is the grand story. I love Peter’s transformation here. The Spirit converted him into a confident and valiant preacher of the Gospel. When it grips you it’s exhilarating, like the “rushing mighty wind” (Acts 2:2). Paul had this same confidence and zeal for the Gospel. As he wrote to the Romans: “I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” (Romans 1:15-16)
Let’s look at the Apostles’ Creed in detail.
I believe in God, the Father almighty
Belief in God is foundational to Christian faith. The rest of the Gospel story depends on this foundation. But it also works in the other direction because the Gospel story is the way God is revealed to us. There are rational reasons to believe and good arguments for the existence of God. Those are valuable for apologetics. But in the Bible, in liturgy, and in worship it’s in the story of the Gospel that we come to know who God is.
Scripture is emphatic that God is one. There is only one God. One reason for the emphasis of this in the Hebrew Bible is because the Israelites, like all other surrounding nations, very often were polytheists, worshiping gods other than the Lord, something pointed out by modern historians of ancient Israel. And it should be no surprise. Idolatry was the great struggle that the prophets railed against incessantly over the centuries. But on this point the Torah was emphatic:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
The Shema was to pervade all life:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-9)
This was especially stressed in Second Isaiah’s writings:
“Look to Me, and be saved, All you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:22)
When Jesus taught us how to pray he taught us to call God “Father”:
“In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespesses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:9-13)
Jesus further emphasizes God’s nature as Father in his parables. I also love the way Jesus portrays the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son:
“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ (Luke 15:20-24)
Paul taught that the Holy Spirit leads us to call God “Father”:
“For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.” (Romans 8:14-17)
Thinking of God as Father makes a big difference. I think we are meant to understand this in a loving, nurturing way. It’s worth noting too that scripture also portrays God in maternal ways.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16)
“As one whom his mother comforts, So I will comfort you; And you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66:13)
We are encouraged in scripture to think of God in this way, as a parent who cares for us, teaches us, disciplines us, and loves us, as parents do to their children.
Creator of heaven and earth
The Bible begins with God’s act of creation:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
There is much that is significant about God and among these things his role as creator is especially salient. Consider all that is. He is before all things. Even though creation doesn’t define God exactly it’s certainly significant among the ways that we understand him and think about who he is.
“You who laid the foundations of the earth, So that it should not be moved forever… O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your possessions” (Psalm 104:5,24)
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord
We move now to distinctive Christian teaching. We believe not only in God the Father but also in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s son:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
The Father declared Jesus’s sonship at his baptism:
“When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17)
Furthermore, the Son, Jesus Christ, is the manifestation of God to us.
“For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9)
“No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:18)
“He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)
Christian faith is distinctive for this focus on the man Jesus. In fact, our faith is exceedingly Christocentric, i.e. centered on Christ. And you really can’t go wrong with that. Phillip Cary has called it a Christian “obsession” with Christ and I think that’s right, in the best possible way (The History of Christian Theology).
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary
Speaking of Jesus, one of the things I find most fascinating about our faith is the Incarnation, that being Christ became physically embodied. The Son became an embodied human being like us. I don’t think we even begin to understand the Incarnation until we’ve reflected on it enough to be astounded by it. And essential to this process was a mortal woman, Mary.
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.’” (Matthew 1:18-21)
“Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?’ And the angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.’” (Luke 1:34-35, 38)
The story of Mary is both miraculous and exemplary. Something I like to think about is how we can be like Mary in receiving and bearing Christ in ourselves, doing figuratively what she did literally. To say to God: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”
Suffered under Pontius Pilate
This statement explicitly situates Jesus in history. The story of God is not abstracted from our world. It takes place in time and space. This is the God who covenanted with Abraham, who led the Israelites out of Egypt. And it’s the story of the Son becoming a man in a specific place at a specific time.
Furthermore, Jesus suffered. This is another crucial aspect of the wonder of Incarnation. Jesus lived and died in complete solidarity with us, suffering not only pain, but also abject humiliation.
“Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole garrison around Him. And they stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. When they had twisted a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand. And they bowed the knee before Him and mocked Him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ Then they spat on Him, and took the reed and struck Him on the head. And when they had mocked Him, they took the robe off Him, put His own clothes on Him, and led Him away to be crucified.” (Matthew 27:27-31)
It’s certainly proper to reflect on this suffering and be moved by what Jesus was willing to suffer for our sakes.
Was crucified, died, and was buried
The crucifixion is undeniably a scandal. We worship a man who was crucified as a criminal. In crucifixion he was executed in the most humiliating and actually cursed way possible. The Torah says:
“If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)
This is embarrassing for Christians, but Paul leaned right into this and emphasized this point:
“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” (Galatians 3:13)
Paul didn’t try to explain away Jesus’ cursed manner of execution. Instead he explained that this was precisely the point. Jesus became a curse for us. Regarding this article of the Creed Pope Benedict XVI said in his Introduction to Christianity:
“What position is really occupied by the Cross within faith in Jesus as the Christ? That is the question with which this article of the Creed confronts us once again… It is the expression of the radical nature of the love that gives itself completely, of the process in which one is what one does and does what one is; it is the expression of a life that is completely being for others… Almost all religions center around the problem of expiation; they arise out of mans’ knowledge of his guilt before God and signify the attempt to remove this feeling of guilt, to surmount the guilt through conciliatory actions offered up to God… In the New Testament the situation is almost completely reversed. It is not man who goes to God with a compensatory gift, but God who comes to man, in order to give to him… Here we stand before the twist that Christianity put into the history of religion. The New Testament does not say that men conciliate God, as we really ought to expect, since, after all, it is they who have failed, not God. It says, on the contrary, that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5:19). This is truly something new, something unheard of—the starting point of Christian existence and the center of New Testament theology of the Cross: God does not wait until the guilty come to be reconciled; he goes to meet them and reconciles them. Here we can see the true direction of the Incarnation, of the Cross. Accordingly, in the New Testament the Cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below. It stands there, not as the work of expiation that mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God’s that gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about. With this twist in the idea of expiation, and thus in the whole axis of religion, worship, too, man’s whole existence, acquires in Christianity a new direction. Worship follows in Christianity first of all in thankful acceptance of the divine deed of salvation. The essential form of Christian worship is therefore rightly called Eucharistia, thanksgiving.” (Introduction to Christianity, 161-162)
I think Benedict makes a very good point here about the radical inversion we see in the cross. This is truly something new. And how appropriate, since with Jesus “all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). No wonder people responded to Jesus with amazement and asked, “What is this? What new doctrine is this?” (Mark 1:27)
He descended into Hell
An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday reads:
“Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. the earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’”
It is fundamental to Christ’s victory that he redeemed the dead from death. Christ descended into the realm of the dead but he didn’t stay there. He entered as conqueror and took the dead with him.
“’When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.’ Now this, ‘He ascended’—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?” (Ephesians 8-9)
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison.” (1 Peter 3:18-19)
“For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1 Peter 4:6)
“Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.” (John 5:25)
Where are our dead? What is to become of us when we die? The state of unembodied death is not a place that we want to remain. And the announcement of the Gospel is that we won’t be left there, but that the dead will hear his voice and live.
The third day he rose again from the dead
Easter morning was the event that started it all. Jesus had a following before but it was the empty tomb and his bodily appearance to his disciples that launched the revolution of Christianity throughout the world. This was what the apostles announced:
“Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. (Acts 10:40-41)
Here is one narration of that day:
“Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’ ‘He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father almighty’” (Luke 24:1-7)
“Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you.’ But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.’ When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, ‘Have you any food here?’ So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence.” (Luke 24:36-43)
When Paul wrote of the significance of this event to the Corinthians he not only affirmed it with conviction but directed them to the many living witnesses who could affirm that they had seen the risen Lord.
“For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas [i.e. Peter], then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty
Christ’s ascension was another event witnessed and testified of by many.
“Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9)
His seat at the right hand of the Father is a place of honor affirmed by Stephan just before his martyrdom.
“But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7:55-56)
From thence He shall come again to judge the living and the dead
Among the announcements of the apostles to the world was that Jesus would come again and that when he returns he will judge all who have ever lived.
“And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.’” (Acts 1:10-11)
“Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead.” (Acts 10:40-42)
“And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.” (Revelation 20:12)
I believe in the Holy Spirit
Also unique to the Christian faith is our belief in the Holy Spirit alongside the Father and the Son. Scripture doesn’t give too many details but they leave no doubt about the Spirit’s existence and divinity. The Holy Spirit is invoked in the rite of baptism itself:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19)
And the Spirit plays an active role throughout the history of the early Church:
“It came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him (Luke 3:21-22)
“When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1-4)
“This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear.” (Acts 2:32-33)
Jesus also spoke of the Spirit’s mission directly, as recorded in the Gospel of John:
“And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you… These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you. Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:16-18,25-27)
The Holy Spirit testifies of Christ and brings the words of Christ to our remembrance.
The holy catholic [universal] church, the communion of saints
Actually this is usually recited as, “The holy catholic church, the communion of saints”. Not only Roman Catholics profess the Creed or course. Christians of other denominations understand “catholic” here as small “c” catholic, in the sense of “universal”. For better or worse, there are multiple Christian denominations. But we still hold to one universal, catholic faith. Paul wrote in several instances about the importance of the unity of the Church.
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)
“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)
Unity is key for Paul. But he also values diversity in the service of unity. The Church is the Body of Christ. And as a body it is an organic system with mutually interacting parts:
“For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many… But now indeed there are many members, yet one body… But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14,20,24-25)
The forgiveness of sins
I think that one of the most important affirmations of the Gospel is that it is possible for people to change. I believe this but I actually find it more difficult to believe than many of the supernatural and miraculous aspects of Christianity. And that’s just because of the competing evidence of experience. We really seem to get set in our ways. Is it really possible to change? I think that believing this demands about as much faith as anything. But this is the message of the Gospel: that we can become new creatures.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Let’s look at some examples from the Gospels:
“When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven you.’ And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, ‘Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, ‘Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins’—He said to the paralytic, ‘I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.’ Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’” (Mark 2:5-12)
“Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, ‘This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.’ And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ So he said, ‘Teacher, say it.’ ‘There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered and said, ‘I suppose the one whom he forgave more.’ And He said to him, ‘You have rightly judged.’ Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.’ Then He said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ Then He said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.’” (John 7:36-50)
This great transformation is expressed ritually in baptism:
“Our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:6-11)
Baptism not only symbolizes death of the old self and rebirth as a new creature. It should also orient us in the way that we think about ourselves, as being dead to sin and alive in Christ.
The resurrection of the body
When I affirm the resurrection of the body it leads me to reflect on our nature as human beings. What are we? Critically, we are embodied, physical beings. When we die and our bodies decay we are no longer completely ourselves. We understand the intermediate state between death and resurrection to be one of peace for the righteous, but this immaterial aspect that is left of us is not complete. We can be ourselves fully only by being physically embodied. This is why resurrection is simply indispensable. The resurrection of our bodies is not just a nice-to-have. It’s absolutely essential to the continuation of our identities as human beings. Paul explained this very clearly:
“And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-20)
“So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’ The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
Resurrection changes everything. I think of history in terms of two major epochs: the fourteen billion years before Christ’s resurrection and the couple thousand years after it. The universe changed fundamentally with Christ’s resurrection. Death is no longer absolute. And that changes everything.
And the life everlasting
I can think of no greater affirmation of the goodness of personal existence than the hope for life everlasting. In this way we say, “Yes. Life is good. I want it to last forever.” Maybe this seems obvious but we might ask, would life get boring eventually and actually become unbearable? If you’ve seen the show The Good Place this is a problem they deal with. I think this doubt is quite astute and I actually don’t think it’s really possible for us to comprehend how everlasting life would be endlessly joyful and engaging. But I believe this is what we affirm with our faith in everlasting life. A few thoughts on this. Jesus talked about everlasting life as living water. He said to a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well:
“Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14)
Working with this metaphor of the fountain of water, I think Gregory of Nyssa (335-395) had an important insight:
“The person who has drawn near to the fountain will marvel at that limitless supply of water that ever gushes out and flows from it, yet he would not say that he has seen all of the water. (For how can he see the water that is still concealed in earth’s bosom? The fact is that even if he remains for a long time at the gushing spring, he is always just beginning to contemplate the water, for the water never stops in its everlasting flow nor does it ever cease beginning to gush forth.) In the same way, the person who looks toward that divine and infinite Beauty glimpses something that is always being discovered as more novel and more surprising than what has already been grasped, and for that reason she marvels at that which is always being manifested, but she never comes to a halt in her desire to see, since what she looks forward to is in every possible way more splendid and more divine than what she has seen.” (Homilies on the Song of Songs, Homily 11)
I imagine here the wonder that a young child has at everything because everything is new. In Gregory of Nyssa’s metaphor this is what it’s like to look upon the divine and infinite Beauty. It’s always new, always surprising and novel.
The most important scripture pertaining to everlasting life is also the most well-known verse of the entire Bible:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
This verse’s fame is well-deserved. This is the Gospel, that the gift of life, everlasting life, is possible through God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
Of course there is a lot more to Christian faith than what is in the Apostles’ Creed. But I like Cyril of Alexandria’s metaphor of the “great number of branches in a tiny grain”. The scriptures are interconnected in such a way that you can pick up at any point and quickly find yourself immersed in its vast network. Each of the scriptures here is part of a story and each story is part of a larger story. Reading these stories is the project of a lifetime of study. But the Apostles’ Creed distills the message so as to be able “to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). It says what all of this is about and what God is about. And it’s what I believe most fundamentally about everything; about life, existence, and all of reality.
Christianity has many unknowns, which makes possible many differing beliefs. This can be discouraging. There are limits in the extent of our reasoning, something Immanuel Kant explored in his theory of antinomies. And there are limits in the answers resolvable in scripture, in response to which Pseudo-Dionysius admonished that theology must remain within the bounds of revelation. But the unknowns need not stop us from knowing God. Key is to persist in way of holiness and nurture a life with the Holy Spirit.
Anyone familiar with a religion will have noticed that there are a lot of disagreements. Every religion has multiple versions even if they share common origins and common sacred texts. Christianity is replete with unknowns, which makes possible multiple interpretations as different people try to fill in the gaps. These differences are not only over minor matters but concern even the most fundamental doctrines like the nature of God, Jesus Christ, and the process of salvation. With so much underdetermined how is it possible to know God and follow him? I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I don’t know of any way to answer all the unknowns. But I do think that even with many unknowns it is nevertheless possible to know God and to follow him. The unknowns don’t need to be a cause for despair.
My original working title for this episode was “theological antinomies and apophatic theology”. I’ll explain what those terms mean in short order. But I scrapped that title for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s kind of alienating and pretentious. And I also don’t really want to endorse apophatic theology wholesale. Still it’s the title that got the wheels turning. And that was by putting two important thinkers into imaginary dialogue with each other: Pseudo-Dionysius and Immanuel Kant. The reason for doing that was to think through how to persist in the joyful celebration of the ideas of Christianity even in light of the many unknowns that remain unresolved.
Pseudo-Dionysius was a philosopher and Christian theologian in the 5th or 6th century. He’s called Pseudo-Dionysius because in his texts he takes on the persona of Dionysius the Areopagite, a 1st century disciple of Paul. He wasn’t that Dionysius, so we just call him Pseudo-Dionysius. The texts I’ve been reading are On the Divine Names and The Mystical Theology. These are very significant works in the history of Christian philosophy. His theology is a standard case of apophatic theology. Apophatic theology is also called “negative theology”. Rather than make statements about the way things are it makes statements about the way things are not.
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who lived from 1724 – 1804. Kant’s greatest work was his 1781 Critique of Pure Reason. In the Critique Kant came up with a very interesting model for the way that the mind works and how we reason. What’s most relevant in it to my topic here is his notion of antinomies. An antinomy is a contradiction between beliefs or conclusions that are each in themselves reasonable. Kant proposed that it is part of our human nature to try to understand things beyond the limits of what reason can establish. And so our reasoning eventually leads us into antinomies. Kant’s antinomies had to do with the finitude or infinitude of time and space, the existence of fundamental, indivisible substances, causality versus spontaneity, and the existence of necessary being. Those all have some overlap with theological ideas but I don’t want to focus on Kant’s particular antinomies but rather this general idea that as we continue reasoning about things we eventually run into antinomies that, for one reason or another, we’re not able to resolve.
Dionysius wasn’t addressing the same problem of antinomies that Kant was but I think his thought is applicable to it. Here’s my basic idea. Christians devote themselves to God in many ways; through obedience, sacrifice, prayer, song, art, service, love, and through study. Theology is a rational study of God and of the religion. But since it is a rational activity it’s susceptible to the kinds of antinomies that Kant talked about. As we push further and further in our thinking about God and religion we reach limits that are intrinsic to the reasoning process itself. Also in the case of theology we come up against the limits of the finitude of revelation, in at least two ways. First, the scriptures just don’t answer all the questions we want to ask. And second, different parts of the scriptures lead us to different answers. You might say that the scriptures themselves contain antinomies.
One classic example of this is in regards to the godhood of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the theological topic of the Trinity. Take the following ideas:
The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. The Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Father. There is only one God.
We can find scriptures to support all of those. But it’s pretty apparent that this just doesn’t all fit together very nicely. There’s something unusual going on here. There’s been a lot of theology on this topic and I think a lot of it has been quite productive, even if indirectly. For example, the philosopher Joseph Koterski made the case that the philosophical concept of a “person” as understood in natural law theory arose in large part over the intellectual effort to make sense of this Trinitarian puzzle (Koterski, Natural Law and Human Nature. 2002). And that’s useful. Still, I can’t say that any theology has ever resolved the puzzle. And to be fair, it’s usually understood to be a holy mystery anyway, one that we can’t resolve, which is a bit like a Kantian antinomy.
Dionysius’s apophatic approach was to forebear from theorizing and even to deny any particular positive theological formulations. It reminds me a bit of twentieth century deconstruction, though it’s of course rather different in its underlying motivations. Dionysius had a keen sense of the way many religious ideas go beyond our capabilities to understand through our reason. And that was one reason for his apophatic approach. But he was also especially sensitive to our reliance on scripture. For example, here’s a passage from the opening paragraph of On The Divine Names:
“And here also let us set before our minds the scriptural rule that in speaking about God we should declare the Truth, not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the power which the Spirit stirred up in the Sacred Writers, whereby, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we embrace those truths which, in like manner, surpass them, in that Union which exceeds our faculty, and exercise of discursive, and of intuitive reason.”
So that’s the first motivation, that these truths exceed our faculty and exercise of discursive and intuitive reason. Continuing on:
“We must not then dare to speak, or indeed to form any conception, of the hidden super-essential Godhead, except those things that are revealed to us from the Holy Scriptures.”
And there’s the kicker. I think that’s the even bigger issue for Dionysius. He is very sensitive to our dependence on revelation.
We might ask here, was Dionysius always true to his own standards? In my assessment he was not. He actually made a lot of positive assertions in his writings that were not based in revealed scripture but rather in Neoplatonist philosophy. That’s not to say those assertions were wrong. They might be correct. I find Neoplatonism rather compelling and attractive. But I also think it tends to make God look too impersonal and inaccessible, which is exactly the opposite of what a life with the Holy Spirit presupposes. So he wasn’t perfect or perfectly consistent. But I find him an interesting and valuable thinker. And his standards were good ones.
One more passage from Dionysius:
“For a super-essential understanding of It is proper to Unknowing, which lieth in the Super-Essence Thereof surpassing Discourse, Intuition and Being; acknowledging which truth let us lift up our eyes towards the steep height, so far as the effluent light of the Divine Scriptures grants its aid, and, as we strive to ascend unto those Supernal Rays, let us gird ourselves for the task with holiness and the reverent fear of God. For, if we may safely trust the wise and infallible Scriptures, Divine things are revealed unto each created spirit in proportion to its powers, and in this measure is perception granted through the workings of the Divine goodness, the which in just care for our preservation divinely tempereth unto finite measure the infinitude of things which pass man’s understanding.” (On The Divine Names 1:1)
This is great stuff. I think this is consummate theology right here. Dionysius is exceedingly astute and a gifted philosopher and that’s wonderful, but even more important to his success as a theologian is his piety, his humility, and his reverence for God. I think that makes a huge difference. It’s one thing for an intelligent person to be able to expertly articulate the fine details of a theological theory. But in the words of Paul, if he doesn’t have the pure love of Christ it’s like sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1).
It’s important not to claim to know more than we do. It’s alright, actually admirable to acknowledge the unknowns, the limits of our knowledge. It’s an act of reverence for God to acknowledge that we are dependent on his revealed word and that he has chosen not to reveal answers to all of our theological and doctrinal questions. But what is critical in the life of faith is to know God in a personal way. Something I consider indispensable and irreplaceable in religious life is direct communication with the Spirit. It’s crucial to remember that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are persons and that we come to know persons through personal encounters. Our personal encounters with people don’t give us exhaustive knowledge about them in every possible detail. In my relationships with human beings there’s a ton of information that I don’t know about them. It would certainly be valuable to know more about them in that manner. But ultimately that’s not what it means to have a personal relationship.
The Holy Spirit is the indispensable gift in the life of a Christian. Jesus said:
“If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you… These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you. Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:15-18.25-27) A life with the Holy Spirit is a life of keeping the commandments and of prayer. The Holy Spirit is sent to bring the words of Christ to remembrance and to give peace. This is a life of a personal relationship with God.
“There went out a sower to sow.” In his parable of the sower Jesus gives various active and passive roles: sower, seed, good soil, soil among thorns, stony ground, and waysides. This meditation on Mark 4 considers the seed as the word and the Word Christ, our receptivity to Christ, how he can enter, germinate, grow, and transform us into new creatures.
One of the Church’s greatest theologians, Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) was an astonishingly prolific writer. He’s especially known for his Summa Theologiae, which is one of my first go-to theology resources. His style was analytic and detailed. Each of the “Questions” in the Summa reads like a geometrical proof out of Euclid, each with some assertion, supporting points, counter-assertions, and detracting points, and a conclusion. It was a masterful intellectual achievement. Yet near the end of his life Aquinas had a mystical experience that seemed to lead him away from that stage of life and into another. He was no longer able to write, not out of physical incapacity but because of the greatness of his revelation. He felt his writings, great as they were, couldn’t possibly match the greatness of the revelation he had been given. The direct experience of his revelation transcended the rationality of this most rational of thinkers. That’s a sobering thought, still, I’m inclined to think of this overwhelming experience of his as a reward for all the work that he had done in a previous stage of life. His mystical stage, if we can call it that, only lasted a few months since he died shortly after. But it’s something I think about a lot. The analytical, rational stage of the adult in his younger and middle ages, succeeded by a later super-rational, mystical stage. Something about that seems quite appropriate. I approach religion and scripture in that very analytical, rational way. It’s just more natural for me right now. But I wouldn’t be surprised or at all disappointed if that changed at some point. As satisfying as the intellectual nature of theology is, the infusion of the Spirit is so much greater. I spoke in a previous episode about a life with the Holy Spirit. Those moments of spiritual elevation are invaluable.
On this subject I’d like to share a meditation Mark 4, a chapter in which we read of Jesus’s parable of the sower, a masterful parable. I’d like to focus on two aspects of it: (1) the seed and (2) the soil. When Jesus explained the parable of the sower to his disciples he said that the seed was “the word”; “The sower soweth the word.” (Mark 4:14). For readers familiar with John’s gospel this can have at least a double meaning: (1) the word of the Gospel, the words that people speak to preach the message, and (2) the Word, Logos, is also Christ himself (John 1:1-3).
Another story about Thomas Aquinas. One day while Aquinas was in prayer before the crucifix the voice of Christ called out to him and said, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward will you receive from me for your labor?” And Aquinas answered, “Lord, nothing except you.”
I love the Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, especially this verse:
“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”
I thought about this a lot this past Christmas. I tried to put myself in Mary’s state of mind as one who receives and carries the Lord himself within her body. She declared so much with that statement, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). I think it’s powerful – also for men, who probably aren’t used to thinking in this way – to think of being the mother Mary, bearing God in her body. It’s one vivid image of something that the scriptures and the ritual practices of the Church communicate in various ways, the Eucharist for example: that we are to take Christ into ourselves and allow him to transform us into new creatures.
This is how I think about the seeds in Jesus’s parables. The seed is “the word”, the message of the Gospel, as well as “the Word”, Christ himself.
In the parable of the sower, the sower plays the active role. “Behold, there went out a sower to sow” (Mark 4:3). He is the one sowing the seeds. By the time the sower passes by the soil is either ready or it isn’t. The soil is passive but its condition makes all the difference.
“And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:4-9)
Let’s talk first about the active role of the sower. One of the things that strikes me about moments of spiritual revelation is that they don’t happen whenever we want them to. They come as a gift of grace. That’s because they’re not manufactured. And they’re not the product of an individual. Rather, they are special encounters between us and Spirit. The Spirit, as the other person in these encounters, has to decide to participate. The philosopher Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) called this an “I-You” encounter. He contrasted this with the “I-It” experience in which a person can individually and unilaterally perceive and consider objects, ideas, and people in a way that doesn’t require another’s free participation. Basically, how we live most of the time. But our lives are sometimes interrupted by encounters of a different kind. And he says these come by “grace”:
“The You encounters me by grace–it cannot be found by seeking. But that I speak the basic word to it is a deed of my whole being, is my essential deed. The You encounters me. But I enter into a direct relationship to it. Thus the relationship is election and electing, passive and active at once: An action of the whole being must approach passivity, for it does away with all partial actions and thus with any sense of action, which always depends on limited exertions. The basic word I-You can be spoken only with one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You. All actual life is encounter.” (Martin Buter, I and Thou, 61)
What’s crucial to understand is that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are persons. We can’t manufacture encounters with persons on our own. It requires the full cooperation of the other person. The Holy Ghost needs to act. And that happens when he chooses. But we can act to be receptive and prepare ourselves. We are the soil and we can condition ourselves as soil to receive Christ.
Jesus interpreted the parable for his disciples in this way:
“The sower soweth the word. And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts. And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness; And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word’s sake, immediately they are offended. And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word, And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful. And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.” (Mark 4:14-20)
A lot here to think about. One part that stands out to me at the moment is the case of the seeds sown among thorns. The thorns are “the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things”. These create unfruitful conditions. To be fruitful it is necessary to be set apart from these things. Some Christians throughout history have applied this kind of setting apart in a physical sense, actually taking up a monastic life. But I think what’s most important is to apply this existentially, to be set apart from the world in the way we live and in our way of being. Especially in the things we care about.
Following Christ is not a light matter and Jesus made this clear.
“And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62)
Wow! Clearly the kind of life Jesus requires is quite different from the way normal people live. In thinking about these verses it makes me reflect on the things I care about and whether they enable or impede my receptivity to the Holy Spirit. Jesus warns about the cares of the world. The Greek for “care” is μέριμνα (mérimna). The corresponding verb is μεριμνάω (merimnao): to be anxious or worried about something. It’s used several times in the following passage from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought [μὴ μεριμνᾶτε, me merimnate] for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought [μεριμνῶν, merimnon] can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought [μεριμνᾶτε, merimnate] for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought [μὴ οὖν μεριμνήσητε, me oun merimnesete], saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought [μὴ οὖν μεριμνήσητε, me oun merimnesete] for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought [μεριμνήσει, merimnese] for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:25-34)
Do we need food, drink, and clothing? Yes, Jesus said as much. “Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.” But he said not to seek after them. And this interesting, he says that seeking after food, drink, or clothing is what the Gentiles do. Gentiles are those who have not entered into the covenant. The Gentile way of life is a completely different way of life, and really the normal way of life. But it’s not the way of Jesus. Jesus said these cares “choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful”.
Jesus explained the good soil represents people who “hear the word, and receive it”. And again, I like to consider the double meaning in which the Word here is also Christ himself. The good soil receives Christ. Christ enters into it, germinates, and grows. Like with Mary, the God-Bearer, the Spirit can enter into us and Christ can abide in us. This reception is also mutual abiding. We abide in Christ and he abides in us. In the Trinity this kind of relation is sometimes called interpenetration and a similar kind of mutual abiding and interpenetration is happening here:
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” (John 14:4-5)
I believe this is ultimately what Christian holiness looks like. Understanding, yes. By all means. Learn the doctrine, study the principles, develop a sophisticated philosophical and theological understanding. I think that’s appropriate and good, especially for certain periods of life. But beyond that is this direct receptivity to the Spirit and this planting of Christ into the core of our being to be transformed into new creatures.