Imaginative Theology

Contents

Prolegomena

At root, all theology is imaginative. God is infinite and humans are finite. There is no way for the finite to grasp the infinite in its totality. In order to talk about God, humans must use representations of that which cannot be represented. Theology, then, also involves the making of graven images. And yet, Christian belief has recognized that there is a difference between idols and icons. While idols lead people to worship that which is not God—and not a few theologians have been tempted to worship the images of God that they have fashioned— icons direct people to the God who is beyond images.

When humans make icons, whether physical or mental, they are doing so in imitation of God, because God condescends to communicate to humans in images. The foremost image of God is Christ. Concerning Christ, the author of Colossians writes,“He is the image of the invisible God” (1:15). The Greek word for image there is εἰκών (eikōn), from which comes the modern word icon. Christ is the visible icon of the invisible God. By looking at him, humans see God. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9).

While Christ is the very image of God, the world is full of images that present God’s attributes in visible ways. As Paul writes of God in Romans, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (1:20). The Psalms and the prophetic books of the Old Testament would be much duller if images could not in some way represent aspects of God. Humans too bear the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) We present a myriad of images for understanding the God who is both described in bodily terms and yet which no human can see and live (e.g. Exo. 33:20-23).

Most formal theology done now relies on concepts rather than on images. The preference for concepts over images is an old one in Western thought. People writing and thinking about God from Plato to Aquinas have conceived of God as the good. The difficultly with the good, as with any concept, is that it is difficult to grasp it in the mind as pure concept. It is like holding onto a perfectly smooth ball. An image always needs to be brought in to tack the concept down to something. The same is true for a concept like omnipotence where images of human strength quickly intrude. It is impossible to operate for very long in the world of pure abstract without having to turn to images. Instead of distrusting images, a conceptional types of theology tend to do, imaginative theology proceeds by embracing images.

Imaginative theology is a method that uses images to approach God.1 It is a via imaginis or way of images. In most cases we approach God via images that are like, yet unlike him, or through a dissimilar similarity.2 Images are both like God and not like God. To say that God is like a lion is not to imply that he has a golden mane and eats meat (cf. Hos. 11:10). Imaginative theology then is fundamentally a creative act. Generally it involves using existing images—there are really no new images—and arranging them in a new way, of making new connections between them and God.

In the following, I have stuck to examining imaginative theology in literature, particularly medieval literature, because that is my background. One could potentially look at imaginative theology in any type of art: painting, sculpture, dance, or music, to name a few. Literature is in some ways the easiest medium to look at for imaginative theology because its images are presented in words, the medium of most theology.3 Literature also resembles parables, which are familiar to students of theology. In uttering the words “the kingdom of heaven is like” Jesus was practicing his own imaginative theology.

The Divine Comedy

Dante’s Divine Comedy is imaginative theology par excellence. Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise is full of vivid imagery placed within a systematic theological and philosophical framework. The poem’s encyclopedic nature, along with its reliance on Aquina’s Summa Theologica, have led it to be called a summa in verse. The Inferno is probably the most well known book of the Comedy because of its shocking and terrifying images. Who can forget the grove of the suicides where branches drip black blood or the damned who are frozen up to their eyes in ice? Yet Dante is also aware of the limits of images. The closer he moves to the dwelling place of God, the more his images starts to break down.

While Paradiso has some incredible imagery, it lacks the materialness of the Inferno and the Purgatorio. Speeches play a greater role in Paradiso, reflecting a shift from images to words. Light, something intangible, becomes a significant element in Dante’s descriptions. As he moves upward, Dante must continually apologize for his inability to fully describe what he is seeing. This change is only natural since Dante is trying to explain things that are beyond his earthly experience. To imagine hell, one only has to take the evil present in the world and intensify it. Showing perfect and untainted goodness is a more difficult imaginative task. However much one multiplies earthly goodness, it will always contain some imperfection.

Dante’s vision must be continually purified and strengthened as he moves higher, reflecting the view that we need God’s grace in order to see God. Even so, the things he sees can sometimes overwhelm his ability to take them in and at the end of Canto XXV Dante goes blind and must have his vision restored. He does at last have a vision of the Trinity and prefaces it with this apology:

From that point on, what I could see was greater
than speech can show: at such a sight, it fails—
and memory fails when faced with such excess.
-Canto XXXIII, (Lines 55-57)4

The images that confront Dante are beyond his ability to fully remember or put into words. After further apologies he finally gives a description of the three persons of the Trinity. He see them as three rings of light of equal circumference but different in color. In the midst of one of the rings, he sees the human image and tries to grasp with his eyes the dual nature of Christ.

and my own wings were far too weak for that.
But then my mind was struck by light that flashed
and, with this light, received what it had asked.
Here force failed my high fantasy (l’alta fantasia);
-Canto XXXIII, (Lines 139-142)5

The closer we get to God, the more our images break down. And yet, it is only by images that Dante reaches the height that he does. He has had an earlier glimpse of the nature of Christ when looking at a griffin (half lion, half eagle) reflected in Beatrice’s eyes (Purgatory, Canto XXXI).6 The higher does not stand without the lower and the lesser image prepares the way for the greater.7

The Dream of the Rood

Aristotle is sometimes criticized for basing his theory of tragedy solely on Oedipus Rex. Oedipus Rex becomes the perfect tragedy by being the definition by which all other tragedies are measured. For imaginative theology to exist as a category, I must show that it is not isolated to Dante or his Divine Comedy. If we move to the roots of the English language, I think we can do so.

The Dream of the Rood is potentially the oldest surviving poem written in Old English. It, like the Divine Comedy, explores theological ideas through images. The Dream of the Rood is a dream-vision in which the story of the Crucifixion is told from the perspective of the cross, i.e. the rood. Scholars have often examined the way the poem synchronizes one of the centrals event in Christian belief with a culture that would have looked on that event as a great shame. That the God of Christianity would allow himself to be executed on a tree by enemy soldiers was a difficult concept for the warrior mindset of the Germanic tribes to accept. Accordingly, the anonymous poet presents the crucifixion as a kind battle. Christ is a young hero who willingly mounts the cross, ready to face his enemies, while the cross acts as a member of his warrior band, ready to fight to the death at the side of its lord. Though the death of the Christ is presented in a more heroic light than in the Gospels, there is another layer to the imagery in the poem.

As it is still called in old hymns, the cross in the Dream of the Rood is frequently referred to as a tree. In four of these instances, it is simply called treow, while in a fifth it is called gealgtrēowe or gallows tree. Trees and gallows have a special resonance in Germanic and Scandinavian mythology. The most important tree in Norse mythology is Yggdrasil, a giant tree at the center of the cosmos. The name Yggdrasil seems to mean Ygg’s Horse, with Ygg being an alternate name for Odin and horse being a kenning for gallows.8 This relates to a story about Odin contained in the Poetic Edda, a collection of Norse mythology. (Odin’s name in Old English, Wōden, is where we derived the name Wednesday from). In the story, Odin/Othin hangs on a tree for nine nights in order to gain runes, which give him secret and powerful knowledge.

I wot that I hung on the wind-tossed tree
all of nights nine,
wounded by spear, bespoke to Óthin,
bespoken myself to myself,
[upon that tree of which none telleth
what roots it doth rise.]
Neither horn they upheld nor handed me bread;
looked below me—
aloud I cried—
caught up the runes, caught them up wailing,
thence to the ground fell again.
-“Hávamál” (Sts. 138-139)9

The parallel to Christ’s own hanging on a gallows tree is clear. It is so similar that it has raised suspicions as to whether this was an original part of Norse mythology or only developed on contact with Christianity. Since most of our written information about Germanic religions come via Christian authors or long after Christianity was prevalent, it is probably impossible to answer this question with certainty. Still, if we suppose that the story of Odin hanging on a tree at least dates back to early interactions between Christianity and the Scandinavian world, an interesting comparison is set up. Malcolm Guite draws attention to this in his discussion of the two poems in the book Faith, Hope, and Poetry.

For though Odin hung on Yggdrasil, though he visited the dead, though he gained the power of resurrection, he was no saviour. He could not meet or deal with human pain and alienation. Through his suffering he acquired personal power and magic knowledge, but he emerges in his resurrection as an incalculable one-eyed god exercising the power he learned from the runic alphabet, entirely at and for his own behest, not as a self offering to take away the dreamer’s sins and win him heaven.10

_MG_8065

A reproduction of one of the 10th century Jelling runestones. The image is of Christ wrapped in the branches of a tree, though the similarity to Odin is clear. From Wikimedia.

The anonymous author of the Dream of the Rood is not only presenting a more heroic Christ through the use of creative images, he is also presenting Christ as a superior alternative to Odin.

The Dream of the Rood brings up one potentially controversial aspect of imaginative theology; imaginative theology often makes use of imagery from non-Christian and pagan sources. Can Christian art draw on pagan images without smuggling in pagan ideas? Some Christian traditions try to isolate themselves from the world because of this fear. Yet such a fear takes a low view of God as creator, for if God is the source of all that has been made, all symbols and stories ultimately derive from him. The raw material with which cultures and religions throughout history have constructed their myths come from God. When Christians incorporate them into imaginative theology, they are re-appropriating and redeeming them. All points back to God in the end.

Pearl

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) f. 038 recto (illustration to Pearl)

An illumination from the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript which contains Pearl.

If we work our way up the tree of English literature, we come to another piece of poetry that uses images to do theology. Like the Dream of the Rood, Pearl is presented as a dream-vision. The Middle English poem begins with a father grieving at the grave of his young daughter. Exhausted, he falls asleep on the spot and is transported to a paradisiacal landscape where he sees her. A river separates them, but they are able to talk and he asks her questions about her current state. Some of the poem deals with questions that a grieving father might have, like why was an innocent girl allowed to die so young. Most of their discussion surrounds the nature of heaven and the afterlife. In a reversal of roles, the daughter lectures her father about how God rewards people and what society is like in heaven.

The poem is layered with symbolism, particularly relating to gemstones, with the titular pearl being the narrator’s daughter. (Pearls carried the idea of purity in the Middle Ages.) There are modern translations of the poem available, though they will probably never do justice to the original. The poem’s combination of alliteration with a complex rhyme scheme and an interlocking pattern of repetition are difficult to retain in Modern English.

At the Back of the North Wind

I have focused so far on medieval literature because that is where I am most comfortable. However, it is well to note that imaginative theology is not limited to the Middle Ages. Moving closer to our own time up the English tree, we find that many of George MacDonald’s works can easily fit into this category. Novels like Phantastes and Lilith show an imagination that was alive to the power of images. Since MacDonald was a pastor, his images are often inseparable from his theological ideas.

While the above novels are aimed at adults, At the Back of the North Wind is one of MacDonald’s children’s stories. The protagonist is another gemstone, a lower class boy in Victorian England named Diamond. The story centers around Diamond’s many adventures with the North Wind. Like Pearl, death is a theme in the narrative. At the Back of the North Wind goes farther than Pearl does in looking at how a good God who is all powerful can allow evil to take place. It is a testament to MacDonald’s incredible imaginative ability that he can present a theodicy in the midst of a children’s story.

At the Back of the North Wind was written at a time when literature aimed at children was becoming its own distinct genre. Imaginative literature became increasingly associated with this developing genre. Many of the great works of children’s and young adult literature during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are imaginative or fantasy literature.11 In contrast, works written during this same time period that are considered adult or serious literature by critics are overwhelmingly realistic fiction. Thus, for the modern era, realistic fiction became the primarily domain of adults and serious readers, while imaginative literature was written for children. This is not to say that their weren’t authors writing imaginative or fantasy literature for adults at the time. Rather, their works of imaginative literature tended to receive recognition and sales only when they were directed at children. This is certainly a long way from Dante calling his Comedy “l’alta fantasia.”

Fantasy literature geared towards young adults, like the Harry Potter series, but popular among adults, have opened the way for the popularity of fantasy aimed at adults. (Would the conversion of George R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series into the “Game of Thrones” TV series have been as successful without Harry Potter?) Comic books, which were originally associated with children and teenagers, are become blockbuster movies and popular TV shows. TV itself seems to be breaking away from realism into shows about vampires, zombies, superheros, the supernatural, and sci-fi.12 Of course, the popularity of imaginative stories do not mean that more writers are doing imaginative theology. American Authors, like Americans in general, are less likely to be familiar with the rich theological frameworks that Dante and George MacDonald had.

The Shack and the Future of Imaginative Theology

The most recent work of what could be considered imaginative theology that I am aware of is The Shack. In many ways, it is a modern version of Pearl. However, it produced an explosion of criticism from certain areas of American Christianity when it was published. The criticism it received has merit. However, one must consider the imaginative work that the author was trying to do. Portraying the Trinity is tricky business, even for the great writers. Dante played it safe by prefacing his description of the persons of the Trinity with multiple apologies and then portraying them as equal circles of light. Whatever Milton’s actually theological views were, his portrayal of the Father and Son in Paradise Lost will always make him vulnerable to accusations of Arianism. If William P. Young failed, it was because he dared to take his imaginative portrayal where one should fear to tread. The closer we get to God, the more our images tend to fail us.

And yet I sympathize with Young because he tried to write an imaginative work for adults about a difficult theological subjects. His book should have spurred a response in kind and we could have had some great works of imaginative fiction about the problem of evil and the Trinity, but it is far easier to criticize imaginative theology than it is to write it. I fear that to much and the wrong kinds of criticism of The Shack has the potential to discourage such work. It is also far easier to sit on our imaginative laurels than it is to try new experiments.

If we rest content with the works of C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien, authors who have had an incalculable influence on my life and thought, imaginative theology will die. (Lewis himself was not without criticism for his work). Every new generation of Christians needs to exercise its imagination and that may mean going, like Bilbo, out of what is considered safe and proper in our insular communities. This is not the casting off of all restraint that it might appear at first. We may find ourselves, like Bilbo, being guided by a considerable amount of luck along the way.


  1. Imagination comes from Latin imago meaning image. Col 1:15 in the Vulgate begins “qui est imago Dei invisibilis”
  2. cf. Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Celestial Hiearchy,” in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibhéid and Paul Rorem (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 151–53.cf. also Charles Williams’s Dionysian ideas:Two spiritual maxims were constantly present to the mind of Charles Williams: ‘This also is Thou’ and ‘Neither is this Thou.’ Holding the first we see that every created thing is, in its degree, an image of God, and the ordinate and faithful appreciation of that thing a clue which, truly followed, will lead back to Him. Holding the second we see that every created thing, the highest devotion to moral duty, the purest conjugal love, the saint and the seraph, is no more than an image, that every one of them, followed for its own sake and isolated from its source, becomes an idol whose service is damnation. The first maxim is the formula of the Romantic Way, the ‘affirmation of images’: the second is that of the Ascetic Way, the ‘rejection of images’.C.S. Lewis, “Williams and the Arthuriad,” in Arthurian Torso (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 151.
  3. I also can’t help noting that Christ is not only the image of God, but the Word of God. Imaginative literature combines word and image.
  4. Dante Alighieri, Paradiso: A Verse Translation, trans. Allen Mandelbaum, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, pt. 3 (New York: Bantam, 1986), 299.
  5. Ibid., 302–3.
  6. Just like the sun within a mirror, so
    the double-natured creature gleamed within,
    now showing one, and now the other guise.
    Purgatorio, Canto XXXI, lines 121-123

  7. What would the Comedy be without the image of Beatrice, or as the title of Charles William’s book puts it, The Figure of Beatrice? Dante would still be stuck on the ground.
  8. Lee M Hollander, trans., The Poetic Edda (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2011), 36; Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Farnham, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 39.Kennings are a couple word figure of speech in Germanic poetry that function a little like riddles. One could refer to a ship as a wooden horse or a sword as a battle-light. In a darkly humorous way, a gallows can be referred to as a steed or mount on which the condemned “rode.”
  9. Hollander, The Poetic Edda, 36.
  10. Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Farnham, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 39.
  11. Imaginative literature and fantasy literature can, in many cases, be used interchangeably. Fantasy derives from Latin phantasia, itself from the Greek φαντασία. The idea of an appearance or image is contained in both. However, the term fantastic theology doesn’t have the same seriousness that imaginative theology does.
  12. Simultaneously there is a shift from a primary consumption of stories through written mediums to performative mediums. The shift away from consumption of written stories is in one sense a medieval trend. While people in the Middle Ages didn’t have TVs, they did have stories that were designed to be read aloud in a dramatic manner, with or without musical accompaniment.

In Darkest Winter—Light

adoration-of-the-shepherds-1646-rembrandt

‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ (1646)-Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
-Luke 1:76-79 (ESV)

The Bible gives no clear indication as to what part of the year Christ’s birth took place. Some argue that Christians chose Dec. 25 as the date of Christ’s birth to compete with pagan solstice festivals, while others see the Christmas celebration at this time of year as something that rose up independently at a early date. However Christmas came to rest on Dec. 25th, winter is an appropriate time of the year to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Dec. 25th is only a few days after the winter solstice, when the sun spends the shortest time above the horizon. The decline in daylight and the stormy weather combine to make this period one of the darkest times of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. As a consequence, light takes on greater significance and beauty during winter, whether it be from a surprise sunny day or rows of twinkling Christmas light. Light breaking into darkness is often connected with the coming of Christ in Scripture, the Song of Zechariah above being one example. The song itself points back to a passage in Isaiah which looks forwards to the coming of Christ. Preceding the well know passage which begins “For to us a child is born” are the lines:

And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness. But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
-Isaiah 8:22-9:2 (ESV)

The connection between Christ and the coming of light made its way into the O Antiphons, which date back to the early Latin Church and are traditionally sung in the days leading up to Christmas.1 The O Antiphons are often known today in their reworking as the verses of the Christmas song “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” The O Oriens antiphon says,

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Rising Sun, splendor of eternal light, and sun of justice:
Come, and illumine those sitting in darkness, and in the shadow of death.2

This inbreaking of light in the midst of darkness may also draw our imaginations to the story of Creation.

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

-Genesis 1:2-5 (ESV)

On the first day of Creation, God brings light to the unformed world which is covered in darkness. During the remaining days of Creation, the world is given form and filled with living creatures, plants, and human beings. Winter is the season of the year when the world most resembles the unformed world of Genesis 1:2. Trees appear dead on the outside while smaller plants shrivel up, leaving only seeds behind. Many land mammals sleep underground in hibernation like creatures in a tomb. The ground may be covered with formless masses of snow and the sky by shapeless gray clouds. Mid-winter can feel like one long slog through dark and cold days.

The arrival of Christ in the dead of winter is a reminder that Spring is coming. Though the world may live in death and darkness, a light has dawned. Days will grow longer and the green growth of Spring is coming. This making or re-making is not merely on the level of nature. We humans who live with death and darkness look forward at Christmas to Christ’s Spring in the world. The incarnation signals the swinging into action of the long awaited plan of redemption. Simeon’s exclamation at seeing Jesus in the temple combines the imagery of the coming of light with celebration at the end of waiting.

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
-Luke 2:29-32

The focus of the celebration of Christmas often revolves around Christ’s coming to save us from our sins. This, of course, is perfectly true. In another sense, Christ’s coming in the dark of winter is the first act of his plan to re-create the world. Christmas is day one of the Re-Creation story. The re-creation of individual human hearts is central to this, but the plan of creation does not stop there. In the end, the re-creation of the world and the destruction sin will remake not only human beings but all creation.

Humans, since they are spirit and flesh, are amphibians, participating in the natural and supernatural world. By participating in the natural world and time, we draw the natural and physical into the spiritual and supernatural. Natural, temporal phenomenon, like the changing of seasons can be embedded with spiritual and eternal significance and made to reflect supernatural realities. Christmas coming in the dark of winter is just once example, but a particularly relevant one as we celebrate God coming in the flesh.


1. Some people trace the O Antiphons back to the sixth century because of wording used by Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy. The reference in question is “Est igitur summum, inquit, bonum quod regit cuncta fortiter suauiterque disponit” Therefore, it is the highest good, she said, which rules all things strongly and arranges sweetly (Book III, Prosa 12) which is similar to the lines in the O Sapientia antiphon, “attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia.” Reaching from end all the way to end, strongly and sweetly arranging all things. It is very possible however, that Boethius shares a common source with the antiphon, Wisdom 8:1. In the Vulgate Wisdom 8:1 runs, “Attingit ergo a fine usque ad finem fortiter, et disponit omnia suaviter.” Therefore it reaches from end all the way to end strongly, and arranging all things sweetly. Boethius’s wording is no guarantee that he knew of the O Antiphons.

2. In “O Come O Come Emmanuel” this is:
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Depression

My computer contains a few half-written posts on the subject of depression. I write a paragraph or two and then abandon the work. The problem comes when I try to describe how I felt when I was in the belly of the monster. Sensations and feelings that I have been keeping a constant guard against show their dark faces. I simply become too afraid to continue. Still, something is better than nothing in this case and what follows is what I’ve managed to cobble together.

Mental injuries, for in one sense that is what depression and anxiety are, are much more subtle than physical injuries. A glance can tell you that your leg is broken. That your synapses are taking in more serotonin than they should is not so obvious. Neither are the mental distortions which take place with depression and anxiety. Is that sense of an overhanging threat or listless related to real things in the world or is it “all in your head?” Blood and broken bone is straight-forward and matter-of-fact compared to a faulty twist in your perception of reality.

When the psychologist asks if I am feeling down I am tempted to retort, “Down from what?” “What is my baseline emotional state?” The question of what it means to feel normal takes on an added difficulty.

And as skilled as we are at treating physical injury, treatment of depression is still an inexact science. Aspirin, morphine, etc. provide quick relief from pain. Treating depression would be easy if the effects of new medication and a particular dose were noticeable the next day. Instead, it may take a month to know if a particular medication will be effective. When it is effective the question of normal returns. What dose is needed to return a person to “normal?” One must not forget that sometimes it is healthy to feel sad. At what point do anti-depressants prevent someone from feeling the full-range of human emotions.

It is nearly impossible for a person who has not been depressed to understand what it feels like to have depression. Kind, well-meaning people, will tell you that they too have felt down or anxious for a time. But that is like telling a solider that you understand his experience of war because you went through basic training. Major depression is a whole different beast from regular sadness or feeling down. Perhaps they are on the same continuum, but there is a chasm in between. Being depressed is rather like being an emotional black hole which swallows up all happiness. Cheering up a person with depression is like trying to fill a black hole with a star. It simply sips down the light and asks for more. Not that depressed people like being emotional vampires or that no one should try to cheer them up. Rather one must avoid thinking that there is an easy fix.

Sometimes it is like a switch has been flipped in my brain or the throttle stuck open. A part of my brain is telling me to panic. Recognizing that this impulse is incorrect is half the battle. Still it doesn’t deal with the impulse which is surging in my mind. It is like someone whose equilibrium has been thrown off trying to walk upright. He or she knows that the sense of level is off. There is a constant expanding of energy to compensate. But how much do you compensate when you no longer know what vertical is. The very realization that your senses are lying to you is itself terrifying because it signals a separation from reality. Depression and madness are in this sense closely linked.

People often respond to suicide by a depressed person with confusion. It’s incomprehensible to them that a person could kill themselves, when his or her external circumstances aren’t that bad. I do understand why a person might prefer death to life. There can be a pain so bad, regardless of external conditions, that death seems the only possible relief. In the first book of Paradise Lost Milton’s Satan says:

The mind is its own place, and in it self

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. (254-255)

In these lines Satan is attempting to ameliorate his banishment to hell. He believes he can overcome the hell around him by creating a heaven in his mind. Of course, the reverse is also possible. In book four, when Satan has left hell and is on his way to tempt Adam and Eve he laments:

Me miserable! which way shall I fly

Infinite wrath and infinite despair?

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;

And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep

Still threatening to devour me opens wide,

To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven. (73-78)

This became vividly real to me once. I was hiking in a beautiful place in the mountains, but in my mind was a sensation that I can only describe as a glimpse of hell. Sometimes the feeling takes on an almost physical sensation. I feel like there is a giant crack in my head, a vast gaping void. Other times my brain feels like it is being squeezed in a vise.

Relationships are equally effected by depression. On one hand, depression is invisible. People can be perfectly helpful in the case of a visible physical injury, but there is little they can do when they don’t know there is a problem. For people who do care and want to help, it can be difficult. The solution is often not simple. Furthermore, it is hard to watch someone you care about suffer. People who try to help, but in doing so reinforce the negative mental feedback loop, can cause more harm than good. I think the best that the friend of someone who is depressed can do is to be present. Listen to whatever they have to say without judging. (If they are Christian they may be thinking and feeling things about God that are usually get swept under the rug.) Reinforce the positive, not trite sayings or hallmarkesque statements, but positive truths. Push against the currents of negative thought without making the person feel guilty.

Seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist is good, probably the most important thing a person with depression and/or anxiety can do. People suggest things like exercise, eating more protein, getting more sunlight, etc. All these are positive and healthy, but they are not cures. They are a part of a complex web of factors that include brain chemistry and interpersonal relationships. Care for depression is care for a person as a whole. Awareness of this goes a long way.

Reading Like a Monk or Church Father

I grew up in a Christian tradition that emphasized the importance of Scripture. The authority of Scripture and the way that Christians interact with it continues to be important to me. The most interesting interpreters of Scripture, in my mind, are the church fathers and their followers, medieval monks. The primary methods of writing about Scripture that I learned in school and seminary were explication and the use of proof texts. Both methods shade into each other, but in general they approach Scripture either as something to be explained or as a point in a proof logical. The works of medieval authors and church fathers use both methods, but they also display another, richer form of inclusion of Scripture. Biblical phrases and allusions slip naturally into the works of these writers. It is difficult to give a succinct example of this because the borrowing of Biblical language only make sense within the larger context of the passage. Authors don’t call attention to these allusions because they are not their focus. Such borrowing stands out in modern editions of books because because an editor has taken time to mark them. This usage of Scripture reflects minds that have so internalized the language of the Bible that it becomes a natural part of the the way that writers express themselves. Interesting phenomena often prompt me to ask questions. What is different about the way that these writers read and interacted with Scripture from our own? What caused Scripture to become embedded in their consciousness? From there I did some informal research to come up with answers.

One of the primary ways that pre-modern reading differs from our own is that most reading was done aloud. There is a famous anecdote from Augustine’s Confessions (Book 6, Ch. 3) in which Augustine describes how his mentor Ambrose read silently. The assumption is that Augustine wouldn’t have taken the time to describe someone reading in this way if it wasn’t unusual. Jean Leclercq’s survey of medieval monastic culture, The Love of Learning and The Desire for God, comes to a similar conclusion about reading in the Middle Ages. In the same way we typically think of reading as silent unless specified as aloud, so medieval and patristic people thought of reading as aloud unless otherwise indicated.

Churches with traditional forms of worship still place a high value on reading aloud or singing Scripture. Scripture itself is full of examples of this. Acts 2:42 describes the practice of the infant Church devoting itself to the apostles’ teaching. After the death of the apostles, this seems to have developed into reading the apostles teaching in churches, i.e. the reading aloud of Scripture or extra-canonical works. Even before the death of the apostles, we see their writings being reading. Acts 15:31 mentions a decision of the apostles at Jerusalem being read in Antioch. Paul’s letters to churches also came with an expectation that they would be read aloud to the congregation and in some cases passed on to other churches for reading (e.g. Col. 4:16, 1 Thess. 5:27).

The reading aloud of Scripture had a long history in Judaism. Acts 15:21 mentions the reading aloud of Moses in synagogues every Sabbath. Since the earliest Christians were Jews, the practice would have been a familiar part of their regular worship and easily adapted to Christianity. Justin Martyr, who lived from roughly 100 to 165 AD, gives us a picture of Christian worship not long after the death of the apostles. He writes that each Sunday Christians gathered, “and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things” (First Apology ch. LXVII)

Personal reading aloud of Scripture is far less common today, but is still beneficial for Christians to practice. It engages the mouth and ears in a way that silent reading is unable to do. Reading aloud of passages of Scripture helps cement the words in the mind in ways that silent reading cannot. Reading Scripture aloud also brings reading to the point where it intersects with prayer. When we read aloud its words, the desires and attitudes expressed in the text become our own. Prayer becomes the repetition of God’s words back to him as our words. Through this our lives become conformed to God’s own life.
Another aspect of reading like the church fathers and monks is lectio divina. Lectio divina meaning “divine reading” in Latin. Lectio divina is not a form of reading with fixed rules; rather it is a tradition of reading Scripture that stretches back to the church fathers and beyond. Today lectio divina is usually associated with the method proposed by Guigo II, a twelfth century Carthusian monk. His Scala Claustralium, or Ladder for Monks, lays out a four-step process for reading Scripture. These are lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio: read, meditate, pray, and contemplate. It is hard to say how widespread this four step approach was. However, I think it provides a good starting place for someone looking to practice lectio divina. Many of us needed training wheels to provide us with balance before we could learn to ride on two wheels. Guigo’s work provides this kind of support while we learned to read Scripture in a deeper, more meditative way.

Though it would be far better to read Guigo’s short work, I will give a brief summary here. The reading part of divine reading seems obvious, but it is important. Reading is done aloud. The idea is to read the words, multiple times, even to memorize them, before trying to interpret. Breaking down the grammar may be helpful. When we jump to interpretation before we fully observe a text, we are likely to read our interpretation instead of the text. As Sherlock Holmes says, “You see, but you do no observe.” Meditation flows out of reading. It involves taking the words apart and looking at their meaning individually, then putting them together and looking at them as a whole. What do these words mean and what are they saying? Guigo likens the whole process of lectio divina to eating. Where lectio involves putting food into ones mouth, meditatio is the chewing of that food. As with bodily eating, small bites are best.

Prayer is the response to what has been meditated upon. Guigo gives the example of the passage “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The prayer that springs from the verse is for God to give a pure heart and through that a vision of God for his meditation has already shown him that a vision of God is only reached through purity of heart. Prayer is the extraction of the flavor from the food. Contemplation is the stage that is most foreign to modern readers. In my opinion, and I think in that of Guigo, contemplation in its full sense does not happen every time. It is a gift from God, an experience of him or a degree of mystical union, that arises out of prayer. Contemplation is not a part of the eating process but the sweetness of the food itself. The process of digestion that occurs in lectio divina helps explain the naturalness of the medieval authors’ use of Scripture writings. Its comes from hearts and minds that have throughly absorbed and assimilated the Bible.

Another aspect of reading that applies to monks specifically is the divine office. This is the practice of praying at set times throughout the day. The church fathers likely had set times during the day to pray, but during the Middle Ages these became formalized for people living in monastic orders. Many monasteries in the Middle Ages and today engage in group prayer seven set times during the day. Prayer involved the reading (aloud) of Scripture and the singing of psalms, in addition to listening to the writings of church fathers. The Rule of St. Benedict, which became the standard rule for most monks in the West, proscribes the recitation of all 150 psalms each week. Not only did monks hear and read volumes of Scripture every day, they sang the entire book of Psalms fifty-two times a year. The Bible was embedded in the mind with the persistence of an earworm.

Not everyone could or can live like monks. Those desiring to draw closer to God in secular occupations during the Middle Ages used the practices of monks as models. Movements such as the beguines and beghards, mendicants, and devotio moderna borrowed aspects of monasticism to varying degrees in their quest to grow closer to God within the world. Even today people use variations of the divine office to pray at set times during the day, such as morning, noon, and evening. Websites and apps have simplified what in the past required jumping between different pages in a prayer book. Even if we don’t separate ourselves form the world and live a life of poverty, it is possible to practice a form of the divine office.

There is one final aspect of reading like a monk or church father that I will mention here. It is the interpretation of Scripture with an eye to multiple levels of meaning. By the Middle Ages the consensus was that a passage could have up to four levels of meaning. These are the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. (Dante’s putative letter to Can Grande contains a classic formulation of these four levels, no. 7 especially). Augustine’s own method prefigures this with a two-fold approach. A passage of Scripture could have a literal meaning and a figurative one, which might be allegorical, moral, or anagogical in nature. For him, the literal/historical meaning of passages in the Old Testament was not as interesting as the figurative. As someone who is trained in historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture, I find many medieval interpretations to stretch the meanings of texts.Do the minute details of the Song of Songs really represent specific aspects of the love of Christ for the Church? There is also the fear of interpretive anarchy, making Scripture say anything. Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate the creativeness of the four-fold method, even if I view it with caution.

When Augustine points to the creation of Eve out of Adam’s side as a prefiguration of the creation of the church out of the blood and water which flows from Christ’s side, I hesitate to say he is wrong (City of God Bk XXII, 17).And, as writings in the later Middle Ages show, there are many parallels between romantic love and divine love. The Song of Songs may have something to teach us about the love of God. I also can’t ignore the writers of Scripture who interpreted Scripture in just this way. Paul takes a law from Deuteronomy about muzzling the ox that treads grain and says that it actually refers to ministers receiving material rewards for their work (1 Cor. 9:9-10).

I think this method of interpretation contributes to the freedom and naturalness with which medieval and patristic authors weave Scripture into their writings. It causes them to be more sensitive to imagery, symbolism, and figurative language than modern readers of the Bible typically are. It also grants a greater freedom and creativity to interpreters of Scripture. Since modern critical and interpretive approaches to Scripture, conservative and liberal, have been influenced by modern scientific method, they have the potential to treat the Bible as a fossilized object of inspection. Fossils, while interesting, are dead. They also don’t have the ability to protest the meaning we attach to them. I think it would be helpful to add a little more playfulness, imagination, and creativity into the reading of Scripture. (Mystery plays put on by medieval guilds provide one interesting example.) This ties into my deeper goal in the post. I do not seek to return to some slavish imitation of past practices. That removes creativity and play. Rather, I want to cross-pollinate our modern reading of Scripture with past practices, growing something that is natural and living. In this way our words, and lives, can be more fully saturated in God’s own Word.

Curator of Ideas

This spring I graduated with a master’s degree in Medieval Studies. The attending transition has prompted me to reflect more on the nature of the degree that I spend three long years obtaining. What is its use? What is its purpose? What are the collection of skills that the diploma represents? I could look at these questions from the direction of employability, examining why a company would want to hire someone with a degree in Medieval Studies, but I am seldom so practical. Rather I want to advance the proposition that the degree puts me in a position to be a curator of ideas.

Curators are people who take care of things. Generally, these items are old and need some sort of special protection. Curators are also expected to display the things in their care for others to see. Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. There are obviously museum curators, building curators, and curators of collections of book, but there are also curators of ideas.

During a recent flight, I was in the midst of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. A man seated behind me noticed the book and asked if I read the works of Richard Rohr. He informed me that Rohr, a Franciscan friar and author, mentions Julian a lot. Rohr is functioning as a curator, preserving the ideas of Julian and presenting them in a form that is accessible to the general public. Not everyone has the leisure or the skills to find and peruse old books. Through a curator like Rohr, a man who normally might not have known that Julian existed was exposed to her writings. Though I have yet to read any of Rohr’s writings (it is always hard to find time when you have so many other things you would like to read) I was following in his footsteps.

Human beings are forgetful creatures. We are always forgetting that which we really ought to remember, which is why we need curators. Curators serve as the memory of human culture. They remember and recall things in their own little sphere that everyone else has forgotten. The curator’s job is not only to bring these things into the light of day, to present the ideas clearly and plainly, but to provide the context that has been lost. When Julian writes, “Synne is behovabil, but al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele,” the curator recognizes that most people won’t know what behovabil means. People may also misunderstand the sentence if they don’t have the larger context from which it is taken.

Before the aforementioned flight, I visited the church I went to growing up. As I attended a couple services, I was struck by a sense of amnesia. Things were done and said without an awareness of the past, of the Christian practices and teachings that have come before. Medieval authors show a keen awareness of and reliance on the past. If a writer doesn’t mention Augustine, Boethius, or some other auctor by name, their influence is not hard to spot. For an aspiring curator, who has a memory of these things, I found the amnesia troubling. At the least the past is helpful, at most it can save us from grave error. Paradoxically, we desperately need an awareness of the past in order to move forward. This is the job of a curator: to remind and to remember so that we never slip into amnesia.

In Defense of Gardening

sun-flowerNo one, as far as I know, is attacking the art of gardening. Still, I though it would be interesting to write a defense or explanation of why I think gardening is important. First of all, gardening, for me, fills a need. Most of what I do in academia is head work. I read books and write papers, all dealing with rather abstract ideas. It is valuable, or else I wouldn’t be doing it, but I seldom produce anything tangible beside a stack of papers. Gardening allows me to work with my hands, to touch dirt and seed. The result is visible and sometimes edible. Gardening is a means of keeping me rooted in the midst of heady academic stuff.

Second, gardening trains me in the art of growing. While it may look simple, growing stuff is difficult. In a world that is becoming more and more based on metaphors drawn from business and computers, we need to know how to make things grow. Growing things takes nurturing, attention, and patience. There are tricks and techniques to make things grow, but it ultimately comes down to learned intuition. This intuition comes in handy in others areas of life. People are organic beings rather than complex machines. Personal or community growth draws on the same nurturing, attention, and patience that go into gardening. Garden then, for me, is an exercise in wisdom or learning about the world from a different angle.

Lastly, gardening is about beauty. I think humans need beauty. (This is an excellent video on the subject). Obviously, we can argue about what is beautiful or whether absolute standards of beauty exists. Still, the more we seek and surround ourselves with beauty, however we define it, the more whole we are as human beings. Not surprisingly, I associate beauty with green and growing things, but also human sculpted nature. Gardening, even if it be in tiny pots, is a way of surrounding myself with a touch of Edenic beauty.

Love and Wax

Love is often held up as the highest good and the solution to the world’s problems. The title of the Beatles’ song, “All you need is love,” written by John Lennon, is just one example. Many Christians would agree with this. There is a story about another John, the apostle John, which Jerome, the fourth century Bible translator, preserves in his commentary on the book of Galatians (6:10). He reports that in John’s extreme old age the apostle could barely speak, but he did repeat over and over again the words, “Little children, love one another.” When asked why he kept saying this, he replied “Because it is the Lord’s commandment and if it alone is kept, it is sufficient.” To say that love is enough is true.

However, one could argue that love is actually the cause of many of the world’s problems. As another popular song says, “Love is a battlefield.” From Plato’s Symposium to any number of country songs, love’s ability to cause suffering is clear. Love of one’s country has also resulted in physical battlefields. Is love then a good thing or a bad thing? The answer must be both. The confusion comes when we turn love into something flat and two-dimensional. Love is complex and we must understand what we mean by love before we lift it up as the answer or blame it for our hurts.

Medieval authors, drawing on writers from the classical era and late-antiquity, recognized the way that love could be a force for good and ill. Love is important in all of Dante’s works, but it is primarily in the last two books of the Commedia that he seeks to define it. Since love structures the topography of the Mount of Purgatory, a place where sins are purged on successive terraces, Dante begins his discussion of love there. He has his guide Virgil speak these words:

My son, there’s no Creator and no creature
who ever was without love natural
or mental; and you know that, he began.

The natural is always without error,
but mental love may choose an evil object
or err through too much or too little vigor.

As long as it’s directed toward the First Good
and tends toward secondary goods with measure,
it cannot be the cause of evil pleasure;

but when it twists toward evil, or attends
to good with more or less care than it should,
those whom He made have worked against their Maker.

From this you see that of necessity
love is the seed in you of every virtue
and of all acts deserving punishment.

Now, since love never turns aside its eyes
from the well-being of its subject, things
are surely free from hatred of themselves;

and since no being can be seen as self-
existing and divorced from the First Being,
each creature is cut off from hating Him.

Thus, if I have distinguished properly,
ill love must mean to wish one’s neighbor ill;
and this love’s born in three ways in your clay.

There’s he who, through abasement of another,
hopes for supremacy; he only longs
to see his neighbor’s excellence cast down.

Then there is one who, when he is outdone,
fears his own loss of fame, power, honor, favor;
his sadness loves misfortune for his neighbor.

And there is he who, over injury
received, resentful, for revenge grows greedy
and, angrily, seeks out another’s harm.

This threefold love is expiated here
below; now I would have you understand
the love that seeks the good distortedly.

Each apprehends confusedly a Good
in which the mind may rest, and longs for It;
and, thus, all strive to reach that Good; but if

the love that urges you to know It or
to reach that Good is lax, this terrace, after
a just repentance, punishes for that.

There is a different good, which does not make
men glad; it is not happiness, is not
true essence, fruit and root of every good.

The love that—profligately—yields to that
is wept on in three terraces above us;

Purgatorio Canto XVII, 91-132, Mandelbaum

At this point Virgil and Dante stand on the terrace of the slothful. Virgil explains that every human loves. Where we direct that love, then, makes all the difference. It is good “As long as it’s directed toward the First Good and tends toward secondary goods with measure.” In other words, as long humans place God as their first love and love other good things to the right degree, love goes well. It is when love fails to do this and “choose[s] an evil object or err[s] through too much or too little vigor” that love goes bad. Virgil lays out three ways that love “seeks the good distortedly,” which cause pride, envy, and wrath, respectively. These three sins are purged on the three terraces below them. On the terrace of the slothful, on which they currently stand, love that is lax or lacks vigor is purged by running. Sinful behavior is corrected by a counter-discipline. The three terraces above them purge excessive or profligate love of secondary good things: possessions, food, and sex, which are the sins of greed, gluttony, and lust. Thus human love can go wrong in three ways: it can love something that is bad, it can be too weak, or it can love a secondary good, something other than God, beyond proper measure.

In the next canto, but still on the same terrace, Virgil re-iterates the possibility that love can go wrong.

Now you can plainly see how deeply hidden
truth is from scrutinists who would insist
that every love is, in itself, praiseworthy;

and they are led to error by the matter
of love, because it may seem—always—good;
but not each seal is fine, although the wax is.

Purgatorio XVIII, 34-39, Mandelbaum

Though the wax is good, a seal may be bad and leave a poor imprint. Likewise, though love is good, its application may be bad. Purgatory is the place where these loves are corrected and directed towards good things in their proper order and measure. The right ordering of love is an idea that Dante draws from St. Augustine.

Central to many of Augustine works is the dual command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk. 10:27). For Augustine, the second command, to love your neighbor, flows from the first command. Only in loving God first and most can we love our neighbor rightly. In fact, we love other people best by loving them in God. All other loves are out of alignment if God is not placed first.

The person who lives a just and holy life is one who is a sound judge of these things. He is also a person who has ordered his love, so that he does not love what it is wrong to love, or fail to love what should be loved, or love too much what should be loved less (or love too little what should be loved more), or love two things equally if one of them should be loved either less or more than the other, or love things either more of less if they should be loved equally. No sinner, qua sinner, should be loved; every human being, qua human being, should be loved on God’s account; and God should be loved for himself.
(On Christian Teaching, Bk. I, 27)

Several things flow out of Augustine’s words. First, true love is intimately related to the love of God. If our “love” results in loving something more than God, we must question whether it is in fact love. One of the most subtle dangers is loving a good thing more than God.

Second, love of God entails obedience to God. The same John who declare that love was enough wrote that, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments” (1 Jn. 5:2). Obedience to God and love of God are bound together. Such a view is rather counterintuitive. Obedience would seem to kill love, yet much is counterintuitive when are our intuition is out of alignment.

I write this recognizing that many Christians have a narrow understanding of obedience to God. Sometimes our obedience is not to God, but to our preconceptions of God. If we find our obedience causes us to not be loving, we must seriously question the form that our obedience takes. John writes, “If anyone says, “‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn. 4:20). It is like a möbius strip. We display our love through obedience, but we also display our obedience through love. I find myself constantly having to recalibrate my love and obedience as my understanding of each deepens. When Christians call attention to sin, the ultimate aim is love. Since God made us, only he can tell us how to live a truly happy life. As Augustine wrote of God, “You made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Confessions 1.1.1)

There is this paradox in love. Sometimes love is a scalpel knife, cutting out the tumor; what appears not loving may be the most loving thing possible. As T.S. Eliot writes:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
The Four Quartets, “East Coker”

Sometimes God’s compassion, and ours, must be “sharp.” For this reason, our understanding of love must be equally sharp, for a dull blade wounds more than it cures. It also makes all the difference in the world that the surgeon is himself wounded. When we must cut, we must remember that our surgeon was wounded for the sake of our sickness. God has experienced the blade with which he cuts. And lest we become prideful, the cancer we seek to cure is the cancer we share.

Souls and Bodies

“You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” This quote, attributed to C.S. Lewis, occasionally makes the rounds among Christians. Its attribution to Lewis has been reinforced by respected figures like John Piper and Ravi Zacharias. The problem is that Lewis never wrote such a thing and probably never would, as this excellent post shows. Yet the quote’s continuing popularity and the need to attribute it to a respected Christian figure like Lewis is significant because it reveals a subtle misunderstanding about the nature of human beings, one that has existed since the early days of Christianity.

Today most people accept the historical existence of a man named Jesus; his divinity is the thing they find hard to believe. In the century following Jesus’ resurrection, the situation was often different. Stories of that time were full of divine beings coming to earth and walking among humans. The struggle was over the idea that a divine being would take on human flesh. Matter was lowly and corrupt, while spirit was exalted and pure. Human flesh would contaminate any divine being who assumed it; that the highest spiritual being would fully clothe himself with matter was an impossibility. Either Christ’s divinity or his humanity had to be downgraded to deal with the conflict. Gnosticism reduced his humanity, while Arianism reduced his divinity.

The earliest church council worked hard to establish the full divinity of Christ. The First Council of Nicaea calls him “very God of very God” while affirming that he “came down and was incarnate and was made man.” Of course, if Christ was fully God, then maybe he wasn’t fully man. Thus the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD says that he is “truly God and truly man” and explains, as much as possible, how those two natures exist in one person. That much was established as orthodox belief. However, its implications for human beings has been much harder to realize.

Our bodies appear to us as gross and dirty, just as they did to many Greek philosophers. Paul, likewise, talks a lot about the dangers of “the flesh.” Thus it is easy and almost sounds Christian to say that we are really souls who simply have bodies. Yet, as the Church has tried hard to affirm, Christ was fully God and fully man without his flesh contaminating his divinity. The very fact of him taking on flesh shows that matter is not inherently evil. Christ taking on a body and retaining it after his resurrection actual elevates the dignity of bodies. Furthermore, if our lives will follow that of Christ, and Scripture say that they will, the separation from our bodies at death is not permanent. Our understanding of the nature of Christ actually has an enormous bearing on our perception of human nature and vice versa.

“You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body,” is a quote that fits better with a belief in reincarnation than Christian theology. (Indeed, the article cited above suggests that the origin of the quote reflects influence by eastern religious thought.) If we are reincarnated, the soul really is us and the body is something we shed each time around the wheel, like a snake shedding its skin. Christian belief, while differing as to when the soul begins, holds that we only get one body. Whenever people are resurrected in the Bible, they always do so in the same body. Likewise, the final resurrection will involve our bodies, though the mechanics of this is tantalizingly unclear. “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53).

Dante works from this perspective in his Divine Comedy. The people that Dante meets in his journey through inferno, purgatory, and paradise are mere souls; their bodies are dead and rotting on Earth. At the resurrection this will change. The souls in hell dread the resurrection and the return of their bodies, for then they will experience the full measure of their punishment. Those who enjoy heaven look forward to the return of their bodies because their bliss, though perfect, is incomplete without them.

While we are alive, it would be better to describe us as body-souls. This is the argument of Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica(I, Q75, A. 4), who looks to Augustine for support. Lewis studied the Middle Ages and his theology shows the influence of medieval theologians. He expresses a similar view to Dante and Aquinas in his Screwtape Letters. Interpreting the views of the elder demon Wormwood is always tricky, but when the demon talks about the nature of humans in the passage below, he seems to reflect Lewis’ own opinion on the subject.

Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. (Screwtape Letters, Letter VIII)

Christ is fully God and fully man, but we are hybrids of body and spirit. To say that we are souls with a body or bodies with a soul is to present us as partially human. Our full humanity requires a recognition of both. It affects our relationship to the world and others. If we see humans as primarily souls inhabiting dirty bodies, we are more likely to neglect the physical for the spiritual. Poverty, injustice, and the state of the environment take a backseat in the quest to save the soul. The inverse is true when the soul is downplayed. We focus on raising the standard of living and political reform while leaving people spiritually barren. A society built on either extreme tends to collapse on itself.

A recognition of our being soul-bodies changes the way we see ourselves. We should enjoy our bodies: taste, touch, the incredible oddity of skin, and the riot of colors that enters our eyes. Yet we can avoid unhealthy obsession with the body because there is more to us than bodies. (Perhaps some of our trouble with body image and beauty comes from an overemphasis of soul or body.) When we grasp this we can move towards life as a fully embodied human being.

 

The Parable of Three Wizards

Knowledge is a powerful thing; it changes those who acquire it. Freshmen returning home after their first semester in college know this. They arrive with heads full of new ideas which they are eager to share with anyone who will listen. These new ideas can cause tension at home, even with parents who have a college education.

All this increases as the level of education increases. Graduate students look down on undergraduates or are smug that their level of education has now surpassed their parents’. Though I have not climbed that high, I imagine something similar must happen to doctorate students and those who have become tenured faculty.

This is not to say that the experience of the highly educated is illegitimate. They have attained knowledge and a level of reasoning that the vast majority of people will never approach. It is like a person who returns after a long stay in a foreign country. She looks forward to the comfortable familiarity of home, only to discover that things are not quite the same. No one can fully relate to her experience abroad. What she brings with her makes home unfamiliar. In this life there is no way to un-experience things. The real issue for the traveler, as with the academic, is how she relates to those who don’t share her level of schooling.

Contrary to the fears of certain Americans, most members of academia are not concerned with corrupting and liberalizing America’s youth. They are far more interested in debates over arcane topics, obsessing over pet subjects, and calculating the next move in the world of university politics. More than anything, they resemble the wizard Radagast in Lord the Rings. Radagast has great knowledge about plants and animals. However, he plays almost no roll in the story because he is far too obsessed with flora and fauna to be aware of outside events. His lack of awareness actually makes him an unwitting pawn for Saruman.

Saruman is a model of an academic in his ivory black tower taken to the extreme. His greater knowledge, and he really has great knowledge, causes pride and a sense of superiority. Everyone should follow him because he knows better. His contempt for others, such as the lowly hobbits, is clear. I think that this is the great temptation of liberals. Liberals frequently frame their position as the most rational or reasonable one. (In contrast, conservatives emphasize common sense and tradition). Those that disagree with them are, by implication, irrational or backwards. If only people would listen and follow their more rational position, everything would workout. Such a position, though sometimes couched in the language of concern, lacks the the ability to fully enter into the world of others, which is necessary to compassion.

Saruman’s other great evil is the use he makes of knowledge. Knowledge that doesn’t include some sort of moral component is dangerous. The same knowledge that can be used to cure disease can also make biological weapons. Saruman uses his knowledge to destroy nature and increase his own power. Knowledge becomes a tool for dominating those who are less knowledgeable and less powerful. Conservatives and liberals alike are guilty of using knowledge as a tool to gain control over others.

In this analogy, Gandalf represent the right use of knowledge. His power and knowledge is in no way inferior to Saruman. Instead of steeling himself in a great tower, Gandalf puts himself among people, particularly simple folk like hobbits. He takes them as they are. It is by far the most difficult position. I often feel the danger of knowledge driving out love, of reducing things to simple solutions.

At the same time, staying among the simple is the best projection against the arrogance of Saruman. His withdrawal into the tower of Orthanc and its isolation probably hastened the wrong path that he took. In someways, I am better reminded of my short-comings by being among the “simple folk” than the rarefied air of academia. In the process, I gain better self-knowledge.

Unwinding the Spring: A Few Thoughts on Current Events

America is tense. We are wound up tight like a spring and the political and social discourse of late only seems to tighten the tension. All too frequent mass shootings are the tremors that come from the strain of built up hate, hostility, and paranoia, longing to be released.

One of many recent events in this vein was a speech by the President of Liberty University, a large Christian college. In discussing the shootings in San Bernardino, he stated that “if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.” If he had referred to the assailants as “those murders” or “those killers,” he would be saying nothing more than what gun rights advocates always say after a shooting. However, adding “those Muslims” ratchets up the tension. It includes all Muslims in the crimes of two individuals when the vast majority of Muslims will never kill anyone. Using broad labels like this is also the fastest way to dehumanize. “Jews”, “Atheists, “Samaritans,” and “Fundamentalists” are all much easier to hate than the person you work with everyday because labels allow us to turn human beings into abstract objects.

The thing that disturbs me is not that someone would make such a statement. The United States is a country where people have the freedom to say what they are thinking, no matter how stupid and hateful. Rather, it bothers me that the leader of a university that claims to be Christian should allow his political ideology to trump his Christian belief. There is no doubt that the commands of Christ in Luke 6:27-29 are difficult. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.”

No doubt Liberty University claims a high view of the authority of Scripture, but so do I. I may not always know fully how to apply these verses. Do they permit self-defense? Should I allow myself to be taken advantage of by my enemy? Still, I must take them seriously and struggle with them, even if the application makes me uncomfortable. The posture of love that Jesus commands in these verses clearly doesn’t align with the sentiment of “ending” your enemy before they have a chance to do you harm. The president of Liberty University placed his political beliefs, in this case the right to bear arms and religious-patriotism, above the words of Christ. To use old-fashioned language, he has allowed his political beliefs to become an idol.

A similar thing happened with the reaction to allowing refugees of the war in Syria to settle in the United States. Several political candidates who pander their religious beliefs to Christian voters attacked the idea. They seem to forget the Book of Ruth, in which a refuge from a despised foreign country became the great-grandmother of King David and the ancestor of Christ. Or the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a man from a despised ethnoreligious minority is praised because he was the only one who stopped to help a person in need. There the identity of my neighbor is extended across national and religious divisions. What about the account of the healing of the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman? Jesus parrots the prevailing Jewish attitude toward Gentiles, then allows it to be overturned. There is the story of Elijah, who in the midst of a time of famine chose not to help one of the many widows in Israel, but a widow living in neighboring Sidon. When Jesus tells the story in a synagogue in Capernaum, he adds that during Elisha’s lifetime, the only person the prophet cured of leprosy was Naaman the Syrian. The citizens of Capernaum responded by trying to throw Jesus off a cliff. Apparently, helping Syrians was as popular among the inhabitants of Capernaum as it is among certain political groups today.

What about the passage from Isaiah 58 about religious hypocrisy?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’

If the United States is a Christian nation, why isn’t it jumping at the chance to feed the hungry and house the homeless? If Christians want to restore American or make it great again, housing refuges seems like a surefire method. I assume that America is only as Christian as it serves our needs and confirms our cherished ideals. At root, the “American Dream” (material comfort and security) is far more important than anything else. Growing up in a conservative Christian tradition, I heard much about denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and separating from the ways of the world. This I have tried to do, but oddly it has put me in opposition with many of those same groups of conservative Christians. Some things are hard to give up.

If concern for the physical needs of someone made in the image of God is not enough, surely there is the evangelical motive. Muslim countries are consistently the most difficult for Christian missionaries to access. Here is an opportunity for those same Muslims to come to us. Something is wrong when Evangelicals elevate their political views over evangelism.

To be fair, I know that many Christians reacted strongly against the resistance to welcoming Syrian refuges. Unfortunately, politicians and leaders who claim to represent America’s Christians have different views. Christians need to do a far better job at calling out those leaders who position themselves as “Christian” candidates, yet play the part of the Levite in the story of the good Samaritan. (Ted Cruz, for example, clearly wants to establish himself as the Christian candidate, while keeping Syrian Muslim refugees out of the U.S.). We need to react when Donald Trump proposes registering Muslims, not because he challenges the GOP status quo, but because such a proposal is evil.

I have a few other suggestions. They are basic and far from exhaustive, but they might help unwind the spring a bit.

Avoid paranoia. Paranoia is insidious. It allows a person to reject everything that might correct his or her false fears. Obama could claim that he is not a Muslim, but that is what a person who was trying to pretend he was not a Muslim would say. The logic is circular and confirms itself. A mindset of fear is also the opposite of what should drive a Christian. It implies an unconscious belief that the world has somehow gotten out of God’s control.

“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Christians need to be savvy about analyzing the information they receive. Too much false information is received via traditional and social media and passed around by Christians without any critical reflection. It doesn’t take too much digging to find out whether a quote or fact is fabricated. We cannot be ignorant either of the source’s motivation. Is it trying to inform, enrage, entertain, or sell more advertising? Simple sells better than the complexity of real life and anger is a more immediate motivator than compassion.

Think beyond a two party system. Christians often seem locked into the mindset of a two party system of government. The result is that they try to conform their faith to the system or the system to their faith. Neither works out well. Since there are only two options, one party must be the Christian party while the other is not. This binary system leaves little room for nuance. Someone who believes abortion is wrong must chose between a party that supports abortion or one that removes healthcare options for the mothers of unborn children and stigmatizes them for receiving help to feed those child. It’s uncomfortable to deal with complexity, but it’s probably time we started.

Stop being obsessed with political power. The idea behind the Moral Majority in the 80’s and similar groups today is that America will only return to traditional or Judeo-Christian morality when we get enough of the right people in office. Then as now, the result is that American Christianity sells its soul to gain political power and still fail to make a difference. It is somewhat similar to the temptation that Satan offers Jesus. He promises Jesus authority over all the kingdom’s of the earth. Think how much good Jesus could have done with that authority. The only catch is that he must worship Satan. Instead of seeking political power, Jesus goes and dies at the hands of the political authority.

Who you are following counts as much as what that person is saying. Take the character of a person as a litmus test for what they are saying. They may be saying things that you agree with, but if they are hateful and narcissistic, e.g. Donald Trump, then beware. As 1 John 4:20 says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Why do so many Christians who hold to the sanctity of marriage listen to Rush Limbaugh, a man who has been divorced four times? Our desire for political power and influence can cause us to compromise our dearest beliefs.
Lastly, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”


Post Scriptum

A person who is familiar with the Bible might point out that it does command the destruction of people groups. Others have written about this, but I felt that I should say a few things about the subject, with the caveat that this is still an area I struggle with. First, the command came from God about seven specific tribes: the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites (Ex. 23:23, Deut. 7:2, 20:17). It is not a carte blanche permission to kill those we perceive as our enemy. Anyone who tries to talk in this manner speaks as only God is able.

Second, the command was to ancient Israel and part of the covenant/treaty that Yahweh made with Israel. Anyone who thinks such passages give them the right to attack their enemies must follow the entire covenant, including not eating pork and avoiding shirts of mixed fabric. Thus the tendency of certain Christian groups to appropriate pieces of Scripture that apply to the ethnic people of Israel and extend them to America is, at the least, poor hermeneutics. They become dangerous when they are used to promise things to nations and individuals which should never be promised. This danger is all the more significant in light of the last point.

There was no separation between the religious and ethnic/national life of ancient Israel. Blessings for obedience to the covenant were physical and material as were the punishments for disobedience. Tribes who worshiped gods other than Yahweh were a spiritual/ethnic threat. One also can’t forget that the religious practices of the tribes singled out for destruction included ritual prostitution and child sacrifice. There was a certain physical danger posed by those tribes.

This is not the pattern of the New Testament. One of the great struggles of the infant church was to separate religion from ethnicity. Christianity cuts across ethnic, linguistic, and political divisions. There is no nation that God favors more than another. Indeed, the connections that I have to other Christians is deeper than any temporal national identity.