Over the years, in thinking about the here-and-now presence of the Kingdom of God, I have pondered about what it actually looks like. Its nemesis, the modern version of secularity, is easy to picture (we unconsciously do it all the time). That picture is of an utterly material world, governed by material laws, with possible (and rare) interventions by God. Mostly, the things that belong to God dwell in the rarified atmosphere of the imagination (or so we suppose). God and His world are “ideas,” which, perhaps when this life is over, we may have some sort of share in as we go to heaven (or hell). But if this secularized account of the world is not, in fact, the case, what does life in a One-Storey Universe actually look like?
Two words immediately come to mind: magic and superstition. What I mean by that is that from a secularized perspective, the actions and thoughts of someone responding in a One-Storey Universe will, most likely, appear to be superstitious or shot-through with magical thinking. Of course, it is also likely that someone who is mired in a secularist mindset will simply lapse into some version of atheistic materialism. Navigating a life through these conflicts is never easy.
As a child, I would describe my life as marked by a secularized, cultural Christianity. I was a Southern Baptist (of sorts) which means a world without sacrament, symbol, or mystery. In almost every way, the world was seen and experienced as literal. There were conservative (or self-described fundamentalists), whose literalism insisted on a seven-day creation and a world-wide flood, but, by and large, the mainstream of my life was marked by the dominance of a secularized scientific narrative. The Bible was, on the whole, made to fit.
There were troubling exceptions to that world-view. For example, ghosts. You would hear stories (not the campfire ones), or, even have some sort of encounter. It was not uncommon to have such questions rebuffed with, “There are no such things as ghosts,” but you could tell that the speaker worried that there might be. We also had Appalachian roots. My mother’s mother could “talk fire out of a burn” and “stop blood.” These were small healing practices that involved some use of a Bible verse, whose origin probably predated Christianity and went back to our Celtic roots in Scotland and Ireland. We didn’t discuss how such things fit. My grandmother’s father could “remove warts” by an equally mysterious practice. It was in the family.
Many such things broadly came under a heading of “superstition” or “magic.” That my grandmother’s actions were exempted were simply signs of the inconsistency within my world. I later encountered Pentecostalism that seemed to mark the opposite end of the spectrum. Virtually everything was seen as a direct, divine action, begging for interpretation. The unseen and suspected actions of demons were far more likely to be given credit than a simple, secular analysis.
Between these extremes, I also encountered, as a teen, the sacramental thought of High Anglicanism. That sacramentality did not extend much further than Baptism and the Eucharist (perhaps because I didn’t ask further). But with that sacramentality came my first experiences of mystery and wonder, of the sense of symbol and sign. (It is of interest to me that my first personal story from Orthodoxy came from a friend who described a healing ritual practiced by his Yia-Yia that would have made my own grandmother blush.)
It is necessarily the case that anything outside of a strictly materialist behavior will appear magical or superstitious to a secular mentality. Of course, even love and beauty come in for criticism under that strict regime. Materialism simply fails to give a sufficient account of human experience.
Bearing that in mind, how does a life lived in the One-Storey Universe deal with the temptations of actual magic and superstition? Is there some way of drawing a line and making a distinction? A primary distinction centers in the purpose and use of the non-material world. This is the axiom: when we seek to use the unseen in a manner that controls or directs the world around us, we have left the path of true belief and entered the world of magic and superstition. It is, oddly, the opposite of the sacramental life. In the sacraments, material things are used for the purpose of communion with the immaterial with the sole intent of communion with God. In magic and superstition, we seek to manipulate the immaterial world for the sake of controlling and managing the material world. It is actually a form of secularism – one which presumes that the material world itself is the true and final place of our existence.
Secular materialism is itself bound by a form of magic and superstition. Its entire object is the control, management, and manipulation of the material world for our own desired ends. That science and alchemy began in the same medieval laboratories should be noted. Science matured as its path of success yielded ever greater power and control (and began to despise its alchemical brother as a relic of religion). We seek to know the hidden “secrets” and workings of the universe in order to become its masters.
When this is understood, the mask of prosperity and “happiness,” that we tout as the flowers of our project, reveal the darker spiritual content of our magical pursuits. From time to time, we re-enact the tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice when we unwittingly unleash a nature that cannot truly ever be managed. Worse still, our magical predisposition weighs against the simple task of living rightly. Imagine living in a household in which one of whose member’s sole interest is the control and management of everyone and everything around them. (This may not be an imaginary thing for some – my sympathies).
Living rightly means, above everything, living. Obviously, there are things with which we interact and control to some extent. But living rightly includes living “lightly,” in which we are as mindful of the nature of things around us as we are of our own needs. The further we go in the direction of shaping and controlling, the more our life tends to move towards inner dispositions that fail to nurture us. Living is an art, not a science.
So, how do we describe living in a One-Storey Universe? First and foremost, it is a life of communion. The nous is the God-given faculty of the soul whose purpose is the perception of God and divine things. A One-Storey Universe is the world in which the noetic faculty is restored to its proper place and role. We do not perceive the true nature of creation, for example, in order to control it. Rather, we perceive it in order to have communion with God through creation. And creation itself is only rightly seen when perceived in this manner. Things cease to be things-in-themselves: everything exists as a manifestation of the goodwill and providence of God.
There is, even in such a world, the temptation to magic and superstition, a human temptation to manipulate and control. This is idolatry, the placing of the self where God alone belongs (it is in this sense that the Scriptures describe witchcraft as “idolatry”). Of course, those whose minds are shaped in modern secular materialism will see almost everything in terms of its own efforts at control. Thus, the veneration of icons, the right regard of the sacraments, the reverence for all created things, will easily appear as some effort to control or force God’s hand. Instead, it is merely the desire to kiss His hand at work in all things.
Life in a One-Storey Universe (perceiving things as they truly are) begins in repentance, and continues in the same manner. We repent from the drive to control and manipulate, and extend ourselves towards all things (and people) in love and the desire to see God. In time, such a life will see the fog of delusion lift and the clarity of noetic experience begin to descend. It’s not magic: it’s just how things are.