The Life of the Cosmos

monksintreeWhat does it mean to be alive? This is a question whose answer would seem so obvious that it is hardly worth asking. And yet. A recent comment drew attention to a different way of thinking about what is “alive.” I will offer some quotes from the comment and then some observations of my own. I give special thanks to Justin.

Everything is alive. Everything.

We encounter the trees bowing to St Irene Chrysovalantou and imagine that God has thrust His hand down from the “second story” to force down lifeless trees. We simply cannot fathom the trees wilfully bowing of their own accord (“green herb for the service of man” vespers Psalm). We cannot see that the wind and waves obey, we fantasize that God forces dead water to part (Moses), or calm down (Christ in the boat). “Even the wind and the waves obey Him.” “Wind and waves, snow and ice, things that do His word” (Psalms).

“The trees of the field clap their hands.”

“The stones cry out.”

“Ask the rocks and they will tell you.”

 Elder Porphyrios spoke of rocks communicating with him. Elder Paisios also spoke of plants speaking to him. St Gerasimos’ Lion, St Seraphim’s bear. “The heavenly intelligences praise You, sun moon, and stars” (Theophany prayer).

“The heavens declare the glory of God.”

“Moving mountains” is not in the Holy Scriptures, instead we are told of the mountains, “They will move.”

Scripture knows nothing of folks wishing in their minds that rocks would crush them; nay, they “say to the rocks, ‘fall on us.’”

The wisest people on earth risked life and limb, by the perilous travel of the day, to hear Solomon’s wisdom. Scripture identifies the content of that wisdom as, (get this) “He spoke of trees.” You can bet your arse it weren’t no botany lesson the wisest humans alive were imperiling their earthly existences for the sake of encountering.

Everything is alive because HE is alive, indeed, He IS life. The Logos has given logoi to ALL things which He has created. Earth, wind, water, fire, plants, animals, men and angels ALL are sentient, all praise the Lord, all can communicate, both with God and all creation. Every tree is the cross, every river the Jordan. All creation cries out…

 The ancient Greeks, beginning with Aristotle, differentiated between things with a soul (animate) and things without a soul (inanimate). Bear in mind, that the word “animus” means “soul.” This differentiation is commonly used within the Fathers as well, though, as our earlier quote noted, there is a recognition that trees, rocks, everything – must be seen as “alive” – in at least some manner. I am not certain that “alive” is the word that we want to use, but for the moment I will stay with it.

We say “soul” and think we know what we mean (we do not). The soul is, indeed, the life of the body. In Aristotle, it is the form and the body is the matter. But even a rock has form. Over the centuries, people have come to think of the soul as the “ghost in the machine” and assume that the soul has an appearance that would be ghost-like. As hard as it may be for us to think in a different way, it is more accurate to say that the soul is the life of the body while having no image in mind whatsoever. What we know of the soul after death is that God sustains it in existence, though an existence of a soul apart from our body is a very strange, and even unnatural thing. It is incorrect to call it a “spiritual” existence. It is simply our life, preserved in existence through the mercy of God, as we await the resurrection of the body.

The hope of resurrection is not uniquely ours, according to the Scriptures: it is the promised end of all creation (Romans 8:19-23). That creation shares in our hope of the resurrection, says that there is much more to all things than our notion of the world as a collection of “inanimate objects” would allow.

Our friend Justin rightly cites some of the numerous passages in Scripture in which creation (trees, rocks, wind, water) are described in very animate terms. They sing, clap their hands, obey and do His will. Are these mere metaphors? Are the writers of Scripture engaging in simple hyperbole? The answer takes us into the hidden world described in various forms of allegory within the Scriptures. The testimony of great saints such as the Elder Porphyrios (who is not at all alone) points to a reality reflected in the language of Scripture. Trees, rocks, wind and water, are all things that “do His will.”

We take existence far too much for granted. To describe anything that has being and existence as “inanimate” does existence and being a disservice. We speak of things existing as though it were a complete given and not extraordinary, while, in truth, everything that exists shimmers with wonder as the Divine will sustains it in existence. What our normal way of thinking does is to reckon that being and existence have nothing necessarily to do with God, while the opposite is true.

That which exists does not exist in the same manner as God. We say of God that He is the “Trinity beyond all being” (hyperousios). God alone has self-existence. Creation has a contingent existence, that is, we only exist because God sustains us.

As such, we do not rightly say that “creation has life because God is life.” But we can say that creation has existence because God sustains it in existence. And it is equally appropriate to think of existence itself more in terms of life than simple materiality. If modern physics has taught us anything, it is that simple materiality is far more complex and wonderful than we have ever imagined.

The Biblical and patristic witness that speaks of rocks and trees in very animate terms are also rightly understood to point towards the kind of existence shared by all things. The whole of creation, we are told, “groans together until now” (Romans 8). Such statements are meaningless if treated in a manner that makes them mere figures of speech. The gift of existence carries something of an animate form, such that all creation speaks, obeys and yearns for its Creator.

We should also understand that the whole of ourselves, body, soul, spirit cries out for God. To give assent with that small portion of our existence that could do otherwise is to put our life on the path of its true nature, and to join the chorus of all creation.

Bless the Lord, O my soul! And all that is within me, bless His Holy Name!

 

 

 

29 comments:

  1. Thank you Father. This reminds me of a secular video I watched that offered a hypothesis that all of the universe is really a hologram, a two dimensional image projected in 3 D. The point was that there is really nothing to existence. How different that is from an Orthodox World View. I would rather believe in God and that all things exist in Him than to believe in the empty nothingness of the hypothesis of modern man.

  2. Maybe a silly question. What is the difference between “soul” and “spirit”? Is the soul more equated to one’s “mind” as in body, mind and spirit?

  3. It is both the hope and the promise of the Incarnation which could not be if life were not in everything.

    Rocks are amazing things each with its own particular life and Scripture makes it quite clear that God loves His rocks.

    Is it not His love that permeates everything and makes it hard work indeed for any part of creation to truly pass into non- exisistance?

  4. There is an anthropology that suggests it is the soul which gives form to the body but I am not sure if such is compatible with Christian understanding.

  5. I read an interview with a scientist who said that they no longer consider life to be something empowered by a soul. Rather they define life as whatever reproduces. How small is that mind! How sad is that vision….

  6. I like when you wrote: “It is simply our life, preserved in existence through the mercy of God, as we await the resurrection of the body.”

    I am trying to see the world differently, and I like when people consider things most take for granted in a clear light. In a sense, we can almost say the “soul” is just a crystallization of our thoughts, words, dreams, so on. It is all very mysterious though. Our lives seem to almost pass forward through time in a sort of circular motion. Will it all begin again? Is there a mirror of ourselves which lives on in another realm/life? Hmmm….

  7. Rocks also reproduce. I can take a hammer and make a big rock into several baby rocks. By subjecting them to heavy pressure, I can fuse them again into a big rock.

    So rocks are also alive, by that scientist’s definition. :-p

  8. Scientists have now discovered that life is “whatever reproduces,” huh?
    Wow, you know what this means…
    STUPIDITY IS ALIVE!!!
    (and I’m beginning to cast a suspicious eye toward my junk mail as well…)

  9. In Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s book, The Orthodox Way, he explains clearly soul and spirit. My paraphrasing of it would be: all life is imbued with soul. The Hebrew ruah (breath or wind) the Greek psyche (we translate as soul). God breathes life into all creatures including our beloved pets. Our spirit is what connects us to God through the His Holy Spirit. It’s what makes us unique in all creation. Get his book. He says it beautifully.

  10. “(and I’m beginning to cast a suspicious eye toward my junk mail as well…)”

    Now Justin has me worrying about the piles of dirty clothes on the floor of my daughter’s room . . .

  11. A great text for this can be found at the “Lord, I Call…” for Forgiveness Vespers. Creation revolts against Adam after his sin, and now, standing outside Eden, he asks that the trees of Paradise would pray for him by the sound of their leaves.

  12. Thank you for this wonderful post, Father. I am reminded of so many things – what came to mind first, however, is the part of that wonderful book, “The Last Battle” which concludes the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis – where the new Narnia is MORE alive, brighter colored, so much MORE the Narnia than that which was before. It is obvious to me, at least, that since we live and move and have our being within God, that all that He is within has “life” in some wonderful, if yet still not understood, fashion. Thanks again for writing this. And thank you, Justin, for inspiring it. 🙂

  13. In regards to the holographic nature of the universe: that is actually true. And it is true of the Church as well. Cat•HOL•ic shares a root with with HOLogram. It means that the “whole” is entirely present in the “parts.” In a true hologram, you could cut it into a million pieces and each piece would contain the entire image.

    Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck explores this in depth in his wonderful book, “His Broken Body.”

  14. Well, to be fair, we don’t define life ONLY by reproduction. There are technically seven characteristics of life, and when you studied them in biology a good teacher should have pointed out to you that there is a nebulous element to them. Viruses, for example, are considered “alive” according to some research and “not alive” according to others. And fire has most of the characteristics, too…

    The scientific definition of life is useful because it helps to categorize an impossibly enormous field of study. It has a different purpose than the beautiful and true spiritual definition that Father Stephen gives here.

    You don’t criticize a hammer for being unable to do the work of a handsaw. But you also have to know when you need a hammer, and when you need a handsaw. 🙂

  15. Thank you Father Stephen for writing this and to Justin for the inspiration in this discussion. I cannot help but be edified by these words:

    “The Biblical and patristic witness that speaks of rocks and trees in very animate terms are also rightly understood to point towards the kind of existence shared by all things. The whole of creation, we are told, “groans together until now” (Romans 8). Such statements are meaningless if treated in a manner that makes them mere figures of speech. The gift of existence carries something of an animate form, such that all creation speaks, obeys and yearns for its Creator.”

    In the previous post I wrote about the “animate world of molecules”, and considered how such ideas might be seen in the Orthodox Christian view. As a catechumen I have a lot to learn. And I would also frequently hear chemists disparage students who “anthropomorphized” molecular behavior. But I do not see a problem with the usage. As you have said so eloquently:

    “And it is equally appropriate to think of existence itself more in terms of life than simple materiality. If modern physics has taught us anything, it is that simple materiality is far more complex and wonderful than we have ever imagined.”

    This is very true. And to witness this complexity and beauty as a scientist can be very humbling and freeing.

    “To describe anything that has being and existence as “inanimate” does existence and being a disservice.”

    I do not think that science locks us into a simplistic, mechanized view of nature but a particular form of hubris encourages this way of thinking, a form of societal inculcation that inhibits the mind and reduces its capacity for discovery in the fields of science.

    Sometimes scientists need to use rubrics to classify natural phenomena. They agree on some criteria to construct the rubric and then use the rubric. Sometimes the rubric stops being useful. There was a time when there were strict boundaries in the classifications between “plant life” and “animal life”. But increasingly overtime, due to advances in both chemistry and microbiology, those divisions began to evaporate and the old classification system was abandoned. The statement I read above that defines life as “that which reproduces itself” is what scientists call an “operational definition” that would be applied by researchers discussing whether or not viruses should be considered a form of life. Also, the rubric was taken up by some chemists who are engaged in cosmology, discussing whether or not molecules that ‘self-organize’ constitutes “life”. The mistake by both scientist and layperson is to consider the rubric a ‘theory’– I strongly emphasize that some “scientists” sadly do not know this difference.

    Fr. Stephen’s statements about “existence” are very close to what physicists think about existence, specifically, he ‘reality’ of our existence is beyond our comprehension.

  16. Dee, first of all, thank you for your integrity and witness.

    Second. I have a question are you anthropomorphizing the molecules or theomorphizing them. Or as you said allowing God to be revealed in His handiwork?

    I find out t deeply sad that so much of what most non-scientists experience of “science” is a hard materialist ideology that is no longer concerned with the truth.

    It is even more sad that so much “faith” has become the same.

  17. Janine,
    I’ve never thought of it that way, but inasmuch as God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” and the Resurrection is in God, then, yes. The Resurrection is in everything. However, to know this we cannot look at things as “things,” i.e. apart from Christ. When whatever we are seeing yields Christ to us, then we will know its truth and the resurrection.

  18. Michael,
    Students learning chemistry often spontaneously anthropomorphized molecules to understand and anticipate their behavior. I did the same when I was a student. Some scientists are obsessed with “objectification” and insist their students use non-anthropomorphic terms. I was not one of those teachers, perhaps because I already knew that “objectivity” was a chimera and “validity” was not achieved merely by adopting an “objective” perspective. I would ask “objective” by what (and whose) standards? Frequently the scientist who was stuck on being “objective” could not discern the difference between reliability and validity.

    My own experience that brought me eventually to the Orthodox Christian faith was discovering the hidden Gospel in sub-atomic and atomic findings. The Death and Resurrection of Christ until that time seemed remote and not at all involved with physics and chemistry. I was wrong. But it helped to not to be afraid of “listening to the voices of atoms and molecules”. It was my habit (and grace of God) of listening and looking for what nature has to say with an open mind that eventually allowed me to hear “their story”.

    Orthodox Christianity has a history and an understanding of icons and their holy purpose which helped to make sense and context for my experience. The Apostle has said:

    12 Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech–
    13 unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away.
    14 But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ.
    15 But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart.
    16 Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.
    17 Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.
    18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.
    (2Co 3:12-18)

    I cannot answer if what I am describing about my experience suggests that I am “theomorphizing”. But I can say that having a willingness and openess to see God revealed in His creation was a part of the experience. Yet I didn’t have a pre-conconceived notion that my work in the fields of chemistry/physics would lead to such an experience. ie, I wasn’t looking for God–or at least I wasn’t aware that I was looking for God. And because I wasn’t anticipating it, the experience evoked surprise, wonder and awe. And gratitude.

  19. This post and the subsequent discussion bring to mind Jesus’s statement to the Pharisees at his Triumphal Entry that “if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Assuming that Jesus is speaking the truth (always a good assumption), it does not seem so hard to imagine that there is something “alive” in even the rocks.

    And this ties in to a podcast by Fr. Hopko I heard recently in which he unpacks the Greek word cleros, which means inheritance and from which we get the constellation of words related to clergy. As Christ is the “cleros” in which the Church participates, there is a similar structure within the Church between the clergy and laity. But it doesn’t stop there–humanity is in fact the “cleros” of all of creation. We are the ones appointed to praise and worship our Creator on behalf of a mute creation. But woe to us if we do not fulfill our calling, for “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” and “the very stones would cry out” if we will not offer up praise on their behalf. Somehow, mysteriously, there is something within even the rocks themselves that is waiting to burst out in adoration of our Lord.

  20. “There is and can be no event that occurs from outside that system because there is nothing else. There is only nature for him – no supernature…..
    But the nature of the Flatland, where everything simply is what it is, can only be affected by external forces.”

    “But we can say that creation has existence because God sustains it in existence. And it is equally appropriate to think of existence itself more in terms of life than simple materiality. If modern physics has taught us anything, it is that simple materiality is far more complex and wonderful than we have ever imagined.”

    This is a strong argument for the “one storey universe”, and the inadequacy of thinking of a natural/supernatural or in/out dichotomies. The entire cosmos is supernatural, and even though we do maintain God’s transcendence, He is as much ‘in’ creation as He is “outside” of creation. I suppose the spatial inside/outside concept is thoroughly inadequate, and perhaps, inappropriate. Just some thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *