Having pointed out that much of popular Christian language (and some images in sacred texts) lend themselves to the notion of a “two-storey” universe – and having noted that the second storey as the dwelling place of all things spiritual has almost insurmountable problems – how should we speak about such things?
First, it seems that it’s worth thinking about what the words we use really mean in the first place. Perhaps the most common and universally used prayer in the Christian faith is the one taught us by Christ Himself. The prayer begins, “Our Father who art in heaven…” or does it? The text in the Greek varies. In some cases it reads “in the heavens” (plural) in others simply, “in heaven.” Of course Christian theology teaches us that though we may use spatial language to speak of God, we cannot say that there is some space “up there” where God dwells. God is not a creature such that He needs a place to dwell. In that sense, the word “heaven” becomes something of a grammatical place holder, a word that allows us to speak of “where” God is – all of which is fine – unless we become literal about it and make God subject to limitations that are simply incorrect. In that sense “heaven” is as “unspatial” as God is Himself.
If you read classical theological texts such as those of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, it is quite clear that the Church has always understood that God is utterly transcendant. He is “beyond being,” in the language of St. Dionysius. The Fathers would say, in speaking of God’s Being, that in comparison to our “being,” God is not – meaning that though we speak of ourselves as having “being,” the “Being” that God has is wholly other and is not to be thought of as having an existence that is like our existence.
In the same vein, the Fathers teach us that God is completely beyond our knowing. Or as Father Thomas Hopko says, “It is impossible to know God – but you have to know Him to know that.” This, of course, plays on the understanding that the God who is beyond knowledge, who could not have been known by us, willingly made Himself known, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. Thus Christ will say that “no one knows the Father except the Son” (Matt. 11:27).
Christ’s promise to us is that “he who eats my [Christ’s] flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:56). It doesn’t say that if you do this you will have visions of a second storey heaven or such things. The language is very “first storey.” Eat, drink, abide. The words are very here and now, though they change the nature of here and now. We are suddenly indwelt by Someone Whom even the universe cannot contain. That reality changes us.
This morning I was thinking on these things as I celebrated the Divine Liturgy. It is quite clear in the Liturgy that the “here and now” has something completely different about it because of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. For instance the Liturgy says:
Remembering this saving commandment [“Do this in remembrance of me, etc.”] and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious Coming.
It is fairly commonplace in Orthodoxy to note that Chrysostom’s Liturgy speaks of the Second Coming in the past tense. Not because we believe that Christ came for a second time at sometime in the past, but that because of what is happening in the Liturgy, we may speak of the Second Coming in the past tense. We are standing at the Messianic Banquet. If it is Christ who dwells in us and we in Him, then how is it possible that we are not with Him at the beginning and the end (since He Himself is the Beginning and the End)?
The coming of Christ into our world, or rather the manifestation of God to us in this world, has radically changed this world. Part of the proclamation of the Orthodox faith is the true nature of life in this world:
God is with us! Understand Ye nations and submit yourselves for God is with us!
…we sing in the service of Compline. If God is with us, then what must this world truly be? The patriarch Jacob once fell asleep and had a dream. In the dream he saw a ladder stretching “from the earth into heaven.” He saw angels ascending and descending on the ladder. When he awoke he made a very strange statement (at least from the perspective of our post-Freudian world):
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:16-17).
Of course, Jacob made a very first-storey response: he set up a stone, poured oil on it [consecrating it] and promised to serve God and to give Him the tenth of all he had.
It is incorrect to think of the world of our faith in two-storey form. The Incarnation, at the very least, reveals that to be not the case. God is with us and has come to abide in us. That truly makes this storey the first.