Christianity in a One-Storey Universe

Preliminary – Death in a Two-Storey Universe

I have written before about the two-storey universe that is part of our cultural inheritance in the modern world. I have noted that the default position of our culture is secular protestantism. I have explained that I mean not that we do not believe in God, but that in our dominant cultural metaphor the God we believe in is removed from our everyday affairs. Often what we are left with is a collection of doctrines to which, for one reason or another, we have given allegiance. But there remains the two-storey universe.

Now the primary difficulty of the two storey universe is that we live on the first floor while (our metaphor would have it) God lives on the second floor. The great unspoken fear for all on the first floor is that no one actually lives on the second floor. Everytime a board creaks we quickly rush to proclaim, “Miracle,” mostly because it finally gives us some evidence that God is moving around up there.

Rumor has it that when some one of us dies, their soul gets to move to the second-storey. If, however, they were bad, or failed to have correct theology, or a number of other factors, they have to go to the basement (this actually gives us three storeys). Our culture is certain that no one goes from the basement to the second floor (this of course is guaranteed by the reading of Luke 16:26 which speaks of a “great gulf that is fixed” between the sufferings of gehenna and the joys of Paradise).

There are those who spend a great deal of time, and money, trying to prove that there really are souls of the departed on the second floor. They make the mistake of becoming Spiritualists, and are all about “proving” there is life after death.

The full effect of all of this metaphysical architecture is that we live in ignorance. We want to believe that someone is on the second floor, but we’re not sure. Thus there can be a dogged fundamentalism with regard to certain passages of Scripture and the way they are interpreted, because it is seen as the only guarantee that we’re right about the second storey. But try as we might – it is an inherent part of life in a two-storey universe that you can never be sure and that doubt always dogs your every thought.

Thus death becomes a crisis of faith. The industry surrounding death is a large part of our culture as well. Today, we often “celebrate life” rather than speak of the second story. We simply remember how good the first floor is and say goodby to those whom we will miss.

In its proclamation of the Gospel, the Orthodox Church predates the two-storey universe. This is a distinct advantage. We do not hear hymns that are full of modern doubt, nor our own lack of confidence echoing back at us. Indeed, Orthodoxy proclaims that when we gather for worship, there are no two-storeys – that Heaven and Earth are together – that we actually eat of the marriage feast – indeed its food is nothing other than the Body and Blood of God. To the question: “Do you believe in God?” We may answer: “Believe in Him? We eat His Body and drink His blood!” I mean nothing blasphemous in the statement – but simply state the facts.

It is this presence-of-Heaven-here-and-now that is Orthodoxy’s primary assault against the mistaken notions of the two-storey universe. For that proclamation is indeed the truth. Our cultural metaphor is like the lie of the White Witch who imprisoned the children beneath the moutain and told them there was no Narnia. We pray in the beginning of almost all our prayers, “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things…” Learning to pray in such a manner and to gradually come out of the darkness of the lie and into the brightness of the truth is also leaving the two-storey universe and coming to live where there is but one storey.

William Dalrymple in his wonderful book, From the Holy Mountain, relates a wonderful one-storey account of the monks (Coptic Orthodox) of the Monastery of St. Antony in the Desert of Egypt. Only the smallest hint of a two-storeyed world has reached them and find the notion unbelievable:

The monks of St. Anthony’s remain wonderfully Dark Age in their outlook and conversation. Exorcisms, miraculous healings and ghostly apparitions of long-dead saints are to the monks what doorstep milk deliveries are to suburban Londoners – unremarkable everyday occurrences that would never warrant a passing mention if foreigners did not always seem to be so inexplicably amazed by them:

“See up there?” said Abuna Dioscorus, as I was finishing my egg. He pointed to the space between the two towers of the abbey church. “In June 1987 in the middle of the night our father St. Antony appeared there hovering on a cloud of shining light.”

“You saw this?” I asked.

“No,” said Fr. Dioscorus. “I’m short-sighted.”

He took off his spectacles to show me the thickness of the glass.

“I can barely see the abbot when I sit beside him at supper,” he said. “But many other fathers saw the apparition. On one side of St. Antony stood St. Mark the Hermit and on the other was Abuna Yustus.”

“Abuna Yustus?”

“He is one of our fathers. He used to be the sacristan.”

“So what was he doing up there?”

“He had just departed this life.”

“Oh,” I said. “I see.”

“Officially he’s not a saint yet, but I’m sure he will be soon. His canonization is up for discussion at the next Coptic synod. His relics have been the cause of many miracles: blind children have been made to see, the lame have got up from their wheelchairs…”

“All the usual sort of stuff.”

“Exactly. But you won’t believe this-”

Here Fr. Dioscorus lowered his voice into a whisper.

“You won’t believe this but we had some visitors from Europe two years ago – Christians, some sort of Protestants – who said they didn’t believe in the power of relics!”

The monk stroked his beard, wide-eyed with disbelief.

“No,” he continued. “I’m not joking. I had to take the Protestants aside and explain that we believe that St. Antony and all the fathers have not died, that they live with us, continually protecting us and looking after us. When they are needed – when we go to their graves and pray to their relics – they appear and sort out our problems.”

“Can the monks see them?”

“Who? Protestants?”

“No. These deceased fathers.”

“Abuna Yustus is always appearing,” said Fr. Dioscorus matter-of-factly. “In fact one of the fathers had a half-hour conversation with him the day before yesterday. And of course St. Antony makes fairly regular appearances – although he is very busy these days answering prayers all over the world. But even when we cannot see the departed fathers we can always feel them. And besides – there are many other indications that they are with us.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What sort of indications?”

“Well, take last week for instance. The Bedouin from the desert are always bringing their sick to us for healing. Normally it is something quite simple: we let them kiss a relic, give them an aspirin and send them on their way. But last week they brought in a small girl who was possessed by a devil. We took the girl into the church, and as it was the time for vespers one of the fathers went off to ring the bell for prayers. When he saw this the devil inside the girl began to cry: ‘Don’t ring the bell! Please don’t ring the bell!’ We asked him why not. ‘Because,’ replied the devil, ‘when you ring the bell it’s not just the living monks who come into the church: all the holy souls of the fathers join with you too, as well as great multitudes of angels and archangels. How can I remain in the church when that happens? I’m not staying in a place like that.’ At that moment the bell began to ring, the girl shrieked and the devil left her! “

Fr. Dioscorus clicked his fingers: “Just like that. So you see,” he said. “That proves it.”

Indeed, it does prove it, and those of us who do spiritual battle in a two, even three-storey universe can only marvel and say, “Pray for us!” How sad for us that we perceive ourselves to be in such a small universe, longing for more, hoping for more, arguing for more, starving for more. God give us grace and have mercy on such blindness as is ours! Come and drive away the dark demons and their lies!

Part One – What Do Words Mean in a One-Storey Universe?

It seems to me that much of our religious vocabulary, defined many times within the past 500 years, is enculturated to speak a two-storey world (see the previous post for an explanation of two-storey world). Words such as “faith,” “believe,” and their relatives belong somehow to a portion of the world that is not first-storey. They are keys to the second storey, and are therefore unconvincing to the ultimate modern one-storey folk, the atheists. The abstracted notions of “imputed righteousness,” when the meaning is something other than an actual reality within the person of whom we are speaking (imputed, as in “in the mind of God”) are tailor-made for a two-storey world. It is little wonder that much religious discourse takes place in the abstracted world of the second-storey. Much doctrinal discussion is little more than moving around air (or digital events) and not about anything that someone is actually doing.

There are plenty of hucksters on the first floor, who make false claims and boast of false gifts. Televangelists playing “baseball” with the Holy Spirit, as if God were a ball of energy to be hurled across the stage at so many bowling-pin believers. This is silliness, driven by our desperation for the marriage of the first and second storey. Such hunger will always produce false prophets. Simon Magus was only the first in a long line.

But, I believe it is equally tragic when those who claim to be teachers of the Kingdom of God, are in fact only sophists, able to manipulate words and symbols in discussions about what the floor plan or the stairs to the second storey must be like, but without anything other than theory to guide. Where is the honest teacher who says, “I don’t know?”

So for the moment I will leave a question (I do plan to return and suggest some answers): what should religious language look like if it is not the language of a two-storey universe? What do words mean in a one storey universe?

Part 2 – The Meaning of Words

I have taken this discussion of life in a “one-storey” universe to that of language, precisely because I think that much of our language (as we presently define it) presumes “two-storey” meanings. One of the places I will press language is our speaking of God’s Providence.

In the “Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina,” we have a version of a prayer that can be found in similar form by other names within Orthodoxy, but certainly a prayer that expresses a very common thought:

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will. At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will. Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee. Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone. O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take plce during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.

Though the prayer states that “all is sent down from Thee” I would not necessarily describe this as “two-storey” language, though it could easily be taken that way. More to my point is the assumption of the prayer that God is indeed, “everywhere present and filling all things.” Equally that, “in Him we live and move and have our being.” There has been something of an abandonment of the concept of providence in many theological corners in modern times – probably brought on from the crisis within theodicy (the technical word for the understanding of the relationship between God and evil – or the question, “How is God just?”) Events of the 20th century, particularly the horrors of modern war and the like, have tended to push the question of God’s providential involvement with the everyday world to the outer realm of theological discourse. When I attended a modern Protestant seminary back in the 70’s, not once was the subject of Providence even discussed. It simply had no place at the table.

Of course, if we are to speak in a one-storey manner, Providence, God’s involvement with everything that is, cannot be avoided. Interestingly, it is not only not avoided by contemporary Orthodox spiritual teaching, it remains very much in the fore. The late Russian elder, Fr. Ioan Krestiankin, speaks constantly of God’s providence in his recently published letters. This language, interestingly, comes from one who spent part of his Christian life in the Soviet Gulag. Such mindless suffering seems to have had no effect on his perception of God’s providence.

However, many are appropriately nervous when they read accounts such as those of the monks at St. Antony’s monastery in Egypt (in my first posting on this topic). The hucksterism and spiritual delusion that are rampant in some Christian circles can easily and appropriately make people shy – who wants to live in delusion?

Thus, I think that as Christians we approach the abandonment of a two-storey universe slowly. Above everything we begin to move our Christian life out of the realm of abstraction and into the realm of living. We pray rather than think about prayer. We trust God rather than discussing the concept of trusting God. We act on the basis of faith rather than spending time talking about the importance of faith. We make every effort to embrace God as good and at work in all things.

I suppose this is a return to my writing about the small things – the immediate things. But this is where we live – and it is where we are being saved. So much of the Orthodox faith has this very concrete character about it. I have come to some fairly simple practices in my life as a priest. When someone calls me at Church to ask for prayer – particularly for matters of great moment – I leave the office – go in the Church – and offer a Molieben (it’s a short service of prayer, designed particularly for just such occasions). It takes about 20 minutes – but it’s what I was asked to do – to pray.

By the same token we bring our faith into this blessed first storey (indeed probably the only storey of the universe) by doing here what we were commanded to do – pray, give, forgive, love, clot