The first time I heard the suggestion that human beings should think of themselves as “co-creators” with God was in a liberal, mainline, seminary (Episcopal). This was in the 1970’s. The meaning at the time was something of a mish-mash of culture-notions that was little more than a way of underwriting the myth of cultural progress as a God-given program, as well as a windfall of new-age silliness. We were not only making the world a better place, we were doing so as Co-creators. I must confess that every time I hear anyone speaking about making the world a better place I hear echoes of Cabaret with a pretty blonde Nazi-boy singing, “Tomorrow belongs to me!”
I offer this as a preface to my reflections on current language regarding “co-creation” and “sub-creation” with the far healthier pedigree found in Tolkien and Lewis. Both authors, with some variation, recognized the human participation in myth-making in genres such as fiction and fantasy. But the question remains: to what extent is it right to describe ourselves with such lofty language?
The sobriquet of co-anything with God immediately raises questions concerning “synergy.” Eastern Orthodoxy is supposedly famous for its thoughts on synergy, in that we “co-operate” with God in our salvation. This stands in stark contrast to certain early versions of Protestant theology in which there is literally nothing contributed by human beings to the work of salvation: God’s work is strictly “monergistic,” belonging only to Him. That extremist view (still found in Reform circles) came to be balanced in Protestant practice by the sentiments of free-will Pietism in the mid-19th century.
Orthodoxy traditionally holds to a synergistic approach to salvation, though, I have come to think of this as problematic for those whose minds have been shaped in modern thought (whether consciously, or not). Modernity is steeped in the concept of our own freedom and the imagined power of our choices. We are said to be creating and shaping our own reality – even our own being.
The doctrine of synergy, as I’ve encountered it in contemporary Orthodox conversations, seems to me to overstate the case. It is accurate to say that we “participate” in our salvation through our freedom, that there is a necessary cooperation on some level, but, I think it is wrong to say much more than this. For one, we simply have little or no clue of the truth of our salvation: it is hidden (Col. 3:3).
The content of our salvation is nothing less than the image and likeness of Christ Himself. This is being made known to us, though in a glass darkly (I Cor. 13:12). Our participation and synergy consists in our persistent “yes” to the work of God. Our role as sub-creators is not unlike that of the Theotokos. She says, “Yes,” to God, and without her ‘yes,’ there is no incarnation. She contributes her “flesh” to that incarnation and participates in the life that grows in her womb.
This is important, even in the world of fiction and fantasy. Not every work of fiction or fantasy can properly be said to belong to “sub-creation.” Nor is every work of art a work of sub-creation. A work succeeds in these acts of creation inasmuch as it participates in the work of God, and fails inasmuch as it rejects that same work. Tolkien famously thought of his fantasy as an act of “sub-creation.” He definitely did not see it as “allegory” (in contrast to Lewis’ fantasies). But Tolkien’s sub-creation can be described as such, not because it stands as a complete world, but in that it works with the same truth as the creation in which we live. To be good in Middle Earth would count as goodness in this world as well. Tolkien’s world is not an allegory, but every sub-creation must “rhyme” with God’s creation in order to be worthy of the term.
Tolkien succeeds, I suspect, because he was a Christian down to the deepest level of his soul. He would have been repulsed by an anti-creation fantasy. This is another way of saying that all created things are created “through the Logos,” and that “apart from Him, nothing was made that was made.” The Logos can be discerned in Tolkien’s work, as He can in much of great literature, many times in an unconscious manner. But, there are works of anti-Logos that fail. When such things, lacking in any true beauty, have influence or popularity, it is almost certain that they do so only as a result of a sort of propaganda rather than any popular love. That which is natural coinheres in the Logos. That which is contrary to nature does not, and eventually collapses in on itself.
This same process can be applied to the human life. There is much about us that is a work of “creation.” In our present culture, we speak of individuals “re-inventing” themselves. But that which we “invent” is not at all the same thing as “co-creating.” The work of creation that is the true self is a gift. It is discovered and welcomed, but not formed and shaped. The deepest act of creation in the human life is that of repentance and the life of true humility.
We do not create ourselves – for one, we stand at the wrong point in time to do such a thing. The Scripture tells us that our life is “hid with Christ in God” (Co. 3:3). Additionally, we are told that:
“…it does not yet appear what we shall be. But we know, that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn 3:2).
The causality of our life is not found in the past or the present; it lies in the age to come. That which we shall be draws us forward towards our true end. God said to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” The truth of our existence is eschatological and its manifestation in our present life is itself a glimpse into the Kingdom of God.
This is not only true of ourselves, but of creation itself. The “new heaven” and “new earth” are not the eradication of what exists; they are the revelation and fulfillment of creation in the “glorious liberty of the sons of God” (Romans 8:21).
But what of fiction and fantasy? Both Lewis and Tolkien were greatly influenced by the theories of Owen Barfield. They shared a common belief in a transcendent realism – that behind and beneath creation as we see it are realities that form and shape the world. None of them should be described as Platonists, but all shared the worldview that was common to the perceptions of the early Christian fathers that had much in common the Hellenistic Platonism. Lewis’ Professor Digory declares, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”
That greater reality is a manifestation or reflection of the Logos (Christ), “by whom and through whom all things were made.” As this is the case, even fiction and fantasy, at their best, themselves participate in this deeper and greater reality. They serve, in their own way, to reveal what might otherwise be hidden. It is also possible for fiction and fantasy to distort and obscure the Logos, though nothing can truly efface all evidence of His work. If you will, the very existence of language, thought, reason, cogency, etc., that mark every form of human communication is Logos-bearing. The very act of denying Him is itself impossible without Him.
This serves, as well, as a model for thinking about the self. The narrative of our own self is under constant revision. Each day’s part of the story serves to re-write what has gone before. The beginning is always being revised by the end. The creativity that marks our own participation in creation (including the revelation of the self) is, most properly, a variation or improvisation on a theme that is being sung by the Logos. This means that listening and observing are among our most essential activities. You cannot sing along if you do not hear the music.
Thank you, Father. This offers a great deal of clarity on some of the things you have previously spoken about, which I regularly mull over.
Thank you, Father. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. You’ve put into elegant language some of the doubts and hopes that I’ve only been able to grasp at dimly.
(Fr. Deacon), I’ve noted your thoughts – and, even moreso, your creative work! I’ve been chewing on this for a bit, and found some time to write out what’s been going through my mind. The extremes that I saw in the 70’s, as well as later New Age use of “creator” terms, were clearly something quite different from either Lewis or Tolkien (or your own work). Both Lewis and Tokien would have said there was a “Deep Myth” (Great Myth, or some such thing) behind everything – and that it was an expression of the Logos’ work in creation – creation’s logicity. Barfield is farm more philosophical than either of them and pushes the limits somewhat. Barfield’s own Christianity is not all that clear to me – that is – I’m uncertain of it. But he was among the Inklings, though not able always to be with them. His work, Poetic Diction, is a very important read.
All Orthodox thought, it seems to me, is “Plato-friendly,” at its core (or some such term). Most especially this is true because we are “Realists” (not Nominalists). That transcendent reality in which all visible things participate is, we believe, actually existent in some manner, and nothing that exists has its form without it.
I’ve been listening lately (Youtube) to some discussions on Intelligent Design – on a serious, mathematical/biological level. It seems to me that it is probably part of this conversation – or, at least, it should be.
Thank you for your work!
Dear Father Stephen,
I don’t know how you do it, but your writing always seems to somehow work in me in a way that’s hard to articulate. No different with this piece.
As a former teacher, a musician, story teller, gardener and animal tender, my life feels replete with subcreation. Long before I learned to give Glory to God for All Things in those terms, I never felt any it was my sole achievement. You can’t be a gardener and not understand the dynamic – you don’t ‘make’ things grow, you arrange the conditions as best you can, and allow things to grow. You say yes. After that, it’s Providence. BTW, just got my peas in, up here in cold, rainy NH 😉
Thanks as always for your writing. But you really must tell us where you got today’s header picture. It’s sort of like Soviet Heroic Art, but seems a bit different. Not quite in the style of 1930’s American WPA art either, but close. What is it?
Fr Stephen -thank you for your writing. Much appreciated. Funnily enough I wrote my final seminary thesis on ‘Co-creation’ and my difficulties with the idea, althoug with out the insight you share with us here.
Just one question – you say ‘[Tolkien]would have been repulsed by an anti-creation fantasy.’ Is this a typo?? If not what do you have in mid when you speak of ‘anti-creation’. My apologies but I can’t find it referenced anywhere else in the piece, but I may misunderstand what you are saying here.
Blessings as always
Had to make up a phrase (creating?) to cover what I meant. “Anti-creation” would be a story/fantasy that somehow tried to operate according to something that could have no place in creation-as-constituted-by-the-Logos. I have not read Pullman, for example, but I understood from interviews, that he wanted to write children’s fantasy that was somehow anti-religious. Don’t know if or how that would work.
To a degree, all fiction/fantasy, of the more imaginative sort, is an exercise in systematic theology. If you are writing a systematic (as Protestants do), the effort requires a cogent account of reality/God/Christ, etc., such that what we know makes sense. Many systematics fail by that measure. Orthodoxy does not “do” systematic theology (at least in the formal sense). Rather, it IS a systematic theology, in the sense that it is utterly organic and complete. It is the completeness and fullness as an account of all things. Sometimes it has to remain silent in certain matters lest it violate that organic completion by saying something “lesser.”
In fantasy writing, the world needs to make sense. It will have its rules and principles. It might even have deities and such. Lewis has his “eldila” and they are certainly “like” angels, but seem to be something else, perhaps. Science fiction allows for a great deal of creativity – and even a great deal of deviance. I’ve not read a great deal in the genre other than the most famous things. Most seem to me to still unavoidable have some rhyming with the world as we know it – though the materialism of most of it tends to present a world made of cardboard – to thin, by far.
Human beings – being as we are – are quite capable of “creating” very demonic accounts of the world. Hitler’s brave new world was darkness personified, right down to the death head’s on certain uniforms. It’s among the reasons I have no ear for Wagner (except as a cartoon score).
If I find a better phrase to express what I mean by “anti-creation” I might try to re-write that paragraph.
Thank you for that, Father Stephen. Most helpful.
Funnily enough I’d just written my question when I happened to bump into someone outside my church here in NZ. We got into conversation which led into Tolkien, as she asked me from where I’d come. My parish was The Shire 🙂 Although it is usually taken to be Warwickshire, Tolkien wrote some of his material in the Ribble Valley in the NOrth of England – his brother taught there. On a Summers evening coming over the hill into my parish you could See the Shire – it was ‘uncanny’
Re Co creation – I think that this is such a troubling yet tempting idea in these times when it is so hard to look out and see something which humans haven’t in some sense ‘created’. We look out on a world where the human is writ large, to our loss. We are great in our own eyes . . .
Father it is my desire to write of what I have learned about the cosmos in science, yet to write in such a way that points to the greater reality of God, what we experience as Orthodox Christians in the life, the greater reality of the Logos’ manifestation. But to do that well requires almost a poetic hand in such a writing. You have it!
I really question myself whether I have such capacity. I haven’t had the theological training, but attempting to learn and working on it. Yet the really good writing flows from love of God in one’s heart I think.
It is interesting to me that not all human cultures are as “ugly” as some. American cities and suburbs are often rather hideous – with notable exceptions. I think it is largely on account of certain dominant American consumerist ideas that do this. There is little unity in our structures, and much else that simply looks terrible. The charm of an English village, I think, lies in its civilizational past (such as the medieval synthesis).
“Yet the really good writing flows from love of God in one’s heart I think.”
I think you are right! Not to say years of theological training and experience doesn’t add more in quantity to the subject matter. But the quality of the writing flows from the heart. You have a heartfelt love for God, Dee, and as such, it reflects in your comments. I have no doubt in your ability to write about our Creator and His cosmos. As a scientist, and as a Christian, your loving desire (loyalty) for Him is what will make the difference in the quality of your writing.
Go for it, and enjoy!
HI Father Stephen – re ‘ugliness’ – Although it may have been a romantic notion – there was little sense surveying the Ribble valley, that human habitation there was ‘out of place’. I guess this is what we might mean by unity? Alienation wasn’t a word one would have used there. Having encountered ugliness in its various urban manifestations – NZ also has its ‘strips’ of consumer outlets – there is a sense that somehow humanity doesn’t ‘belong’ in such situations.
I returned to my studies on St Maximus the Confessor, so your references to the Logos and His presence behind, in and through all things was a delight to see.
“…the very existence of language, thought, reason, cogency, etc., that mark every form of human communication is Logos-bearing. The very act of denying Him is itself impossible without Him .” Very well said, Father!
As for fiction and fantasy, I admit, with a blush, that my favorites were the old black and white sci-fi “B” movies. The classics…Lon Chaney as Frankenstein and the Wolfman; Bella Lugosi as Dracula. There’s more. Strong moral – good vs evil – content. Very entertaining as a kid. Those movies didn’t scare me, because the ‘good’ always won. What did scare me though was when they went from fiction to non-fiction, like The Exorcist. The whole attitude changed, where there was no victor for the ‘good’. Terror reigned. Chainsaws, and the like. Would’ve made Frankenstein cringe.
Just a bit of my two-cents on the sci-fi scene!
Enjoyed the article. Thank you!
I have what would be a very long article that I’m probably going to edit and put on the blog. It started as a talk for some college students – but the virus cancelled the event. I reworked it a little for a parish retreat. So, I suppose I’ll rework it yet again for the blog. But – the point – it’s an exploration of “utility” which is one of the great “mantras” of modernity. Utility – i.e. usefulness. The talk begins by noting that “God is useless.” It’s certainly the case that all of the most important things in life – such as beauty – are “useless.” When the drive of modernity is for profit, maximizing utility and minimizing expense, the result is the loss of beauty (and much else). I would observe that humans have a wonderful place in creation – but the less we are truly human – the more our place is distorted by our usage. To be truly human is to be like God. Modernity teaches us to live as parasites.
Dear Fr. Stephen,
Thank you for this exposition. I’ve been thinking about the idea of co-creation from the other end, kind of:
When we feel we are co-creators, we assume responsibility for our life and the world.
Whether in the very essence it’s true or not, it wouldn’t do if we, based on the thought that all is done by the Lord, conclude that we have no task here.
I like very much how you write that lastly, we can’t really know. I’ve heard the question “Do we have free will or is everything predetermined?” answered like this: “When you attain cosmic consciousness, that question doesn’t arise anymore. On that level, our will becomes God’s will.”
I think this means: we have to grow spiritually to overcome the duality in our thinking and rise to a higher level of awareness, much like dialectical growth but taken further.
Lastly, one aspect of the word “co-creating” is of bliss. When at certain moments we feel that what we are doing is “fully” aligned with God’s will, that gives a wonderful thrill and a great inspiration to do our very best to have that always, if possible. So the word can also be used as an expression of an experience. I think that’s what a little girl tried to say with this painting:
Hello Father, Eric, et al,
Concerning Eric’s comment about “The Shire,” my heart ached to see it when you described it. My first parish was in the Antelope Valley, which is in high desert North of Los Angeles. My wife and I had been there to attend my cousin’s wedding and commented that mankind had made it a hell on earth. Miles and miles of McMansions and strip malls. When Sayidna Joseph said something that pointed to us going back to Southern California, we asked how bad could that be. Then we thought of the Antelope Valley. I did a quick search and saw that there was a small parish there being tended by a Priest who was attached to another parish and had never wanted to be a pastor. Of course God has a great sense of humor and that is where we ended up.
We had a wonderful time there with a great group of parishioners. I learned to recognize the great beauty of the high desert despite the ugliness that we, like Wormtongue, had wrought there.
After 6 years, I was moved to my current parish in the Santa Cruz mountains. It is a beautiful area that represented two different outcomes for populating an area. The Antelope Valley became a planned community that was to benefit from becoming a bedroom community for the greater L.A. basin. Santa Cruz and especially the Santa Cruz Mountains, grew organically out of, ironically, the lumbar industry. Mankind was more “successful” in reaping material wealth out of the wilderness of the high desert.
As for up here in NorCal, while the original old growth Redwoods are gone, the victims of our society’s sick need to ever grow and expand, nature has been allowed to again dominate the area and mankind has taken a backseat to the beauty that God has given us.
Thank you again and again Father for “co-creating” through your willingness to utilize the gifts that God has given you. As I tell people when they say something about my homilies, we am simply the amplifiers. It is God who speaks through us when we can get out of His way.
If God is useless, then is church useless also?
I have very doubtful thoughts about “cosmic consciousness,” “higher level of awareness,” and such. I’m not sure where you are coming from in this, but it seems to be somewhere other than Orthodox Christianity. Vocabulary notwithstanding, I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing. “We assume responsibility” is very easily nothing more than the modern project in which we imagine ourselves to be the masters of all we survey. Any of this, apart from Christ, will inevitably miss the boat. Part of the advantage of Orthodox Christianity is a tradition that has navigated these waters for 2000 years – ever so much more reliable than making things up for ourselves as we go along.
I love CS Lewis’ observation: “In theology, novelty is not a virtue.” It’s a constant reminder that our priestly task is simply to find a way to say what has already been said, to do what has already been done, to be what we were created to be. The “yes” that resounds in our heart to the truth when it is recognized, comes from the fact that we already knew it, somehow.
The tragedy of what our economic drives have done to the creation around us, is that it would not have cost any more to have done it properly and well. At the core, I think, is that we lost our love of beauty. But that’s a much larger topic.
If you understand what I mean by “useless,” then the Church is rightly lived as useless as well. Contemporary Christian has poisoned itself by trying to be “useful.” The paradox in utility is that you cannot actually live a life based in utility – it’s the wrong question and the wrong answer.
We do not want to be loved for our usefulness (“You only want to use me!”). We want to be loved for ourselves – whether we are “useful” or not. When the Church is reduced to usefulness – we quickly discover that something else will take care of that “use.” And we sink into the dust of useful things. Go to a garbage dump, or a junkyard. There you will see the end of useful things.
I feel like there is more resistance to the notion of the useless Church then the useless God.. perhaps because the Church seems like something that could be included in secular schemes. After all, it does helpful things. The last thing that is wanted is something not helping to turn the wheel of society. But mostly when I hear this from people, it makes me sad that that is only measure they have for their own worth.
Yes. It is an emptiness. After a fashion, we are all “being played” in the notion of usefulness. We are given an ideology of self-worth in which we agree to be someone else’s slave – making them quite rich while we struggle to feel ok about useless selves. When I was 17, I announced to my parents that I was not going to college. I planned to find a job doing labor and to support myself so that I could do “ministry” on the street (I was a Jesus Freak). Significantly, my parents did not interfere. I followed that plan for 2 years. I learned a lot (more than I actually processed at the time).
Eventually I went to college and entered the priesthood, etc. But the temptation to be useful always remains. I recall, from time to time, the deep joy that I often experienced in those 2 years. It was a wonderful freedom.
But – the point – it’s an exploration of “utility” which is one of the great “mantras” of modernity. Utility – i.e. usefulness. The talk begins by noting that “God is useless.”
Father, this brought to mind a Kickstarter by a group of SJWs entitled, Prayer Does Nothing. When I saw it, I almost laughed at the shallowness of thought. I very much look forward to your post on this.
For all of their good intentions – SJW’s – are simply modernists on steroids. With the right leadership, they’ll kill us all.
Thank you for this blog post and for your comments here, Fr. Stephen, I especially appreciate this: “If you understand what I mean by “useless,” then the Church is rightly lived as useless as well. Contemporary Christian has poisoned itself by trying to be “useful.” The paradox in utility is that you cannot actually live a life based in utility – it’s the wrong question and the wrong answer.
We do not want to be loved for our usefulness (“You only want to use me!”). We want to be loved for ourselves – whether we are “useful” or not. When the Church is reduced to usefulness – we quickly discover that something else will take care of that “use.” And we sink into the dust of useful things. Go to a garbage dump, or a junkyard. There you will see the end of useful things.”
I do hope you will write more about this topic, it is something that Our Lord is helping me struggle with since — well, most of my 50 plus years in this world. To read that you say “it’s the wrong question and the wrong answer” makes my heart lighten. God bless you!
Re utility – Yes! I love the title of Eugene Peterson’s book – the unnecessary pastor. For clergy the temptation to ‘be seen to be doing something’ is so great! There is a uselessness to church which we find SO hard to live with. Perhaps our struggle in these days is because we are so much prey to ‘utility’
Over the last few weeks I have been meditating at length upon the ‘hiddenness’ of the Christian Life . . . Jesus brothers asked him to prove himself – to show himself . . . to make sense to The World! We Disappear, or we disappear . . .
Christ is risen!
Dear father Stephen
If I were to put into words the observation, that there is a parallel reality to our everyday visible reality that determines, what happens in this our perceived everyday reality – what could I do?
It is my direct experience, that this is in fact the case, but it can be difficult to present this to others with precision. It’s easy enough to say things like “there is more between heaven and earth” and some such … but that’s not really very helpful. Would Plato really be the place to go?
I don’t think I’d turn to Plato…unless they’re already reading him. There are books like Lewis and Tolkien’s fantasies (for example), even Charles Williams, and so on. What I think I would say to someone, if they liked those things, is the question, “Why do we like these things? Why does there seem to be some sort of feeling of ‘truth’ about these stories?” First, I think people (especially children) have a sort of “inkling” about this reality behind and within – but have been repeatedly told that they should ignore it.
My book, Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe is pretty much about the reality of this experience and going about it in our daily lives. I’m not an ‘active’ evangelist, seeking out people so I can tell them about all of this. But I’m an “always” evangelist – never not talking about all of this. Sometimes, like an acorn, it falls into good soil and a tree grows. I have a much greater sense of “forest” now than I did when I started writing…
“Modernity teaches us to live as parasites.” That being the case, the natural end of things is self-annihilation. That is why the SJWs would kill us all. In modernity only the worst in man is recognized because to do otherwise requires that God, fully human and fully Divine, be recognized and loved back.
To love however requires a willing and conscious surrender of self. Can’t do that, says modernity, or you cease to exist or loose all meaning. We have to exert our will ton”change the world” but that required violence and coercion. “We have to destroy the earth to save it”
The logical non-sequitors of modernity are never ending and stunning in their utter illogic but so hard to escape it seems.
re: “The Exorcist” The movie version adds a fair amount if fiction. In reality, neither the possessed (a boy, as it happens) nor any priest died, but apparently after some 20 or so prayer sessions with a Catholic exorcist, the demon was cast out after the boy had been received into the Catholic Church. During the final session, the boy reported seeing St. Michael the Archangel chasing away the demon. He subsequently had no further problems of this nature and went on to complete school, marry and have a family. (His possession started with playing with a Ouija board.)
Similarly, in “The Rite”, Fr. Gary Thomas, on whom the apprentice exorcist in the movie is based explains while demons sometimes attack an exorcist, no Catholic exorcist has ever become possessed by a demon as happens in the movie (let alone killed by one), and Fr. Thomas also never witnessed the death of a possessed person in the process of an exorcism according to the book.
Bottom line is in neither of these cases in real life did the devil prevail over the power of Christ. Hollywood’s B horror movies based on classic works of fiction that were predicated on a Christian world view are more true than the true accounts Hollywood embellishes (at least when it comes to true accounts in which traditional Christian teaching is validated).
Yes, there is a proper heart ache in these things. We live now on the other side of the world, NZ. When we arrived it was not long after the LOTR movies and folks said, ‘Welcome to Middle Earth’, but here it was just a film set. (For what its worth The Shire is I thing the weakest bit of the cinematography in that movie – we know the people on whose land it was constructed. It looks false) One Saw The Shire in the Ribble Valley, although there were no hobbits 🙂 I think that there is something in this re the oft repeated command in Scripture ‘Behold!’ We are commanded to allow our gaze to unfocus from the surface of things, to perceive their logoi, their Truth, and thus to live truthfully. Fundamentally this calls us to Know God in and through all things, and thus to know Things as they Are.
Apologies for the ramble – we liked to ramble in England 🙂
For me, the hallmark of truly great fantastical fiction (and maybe fiction in general) is that they touch parts of me that longs for something beyond. I have kept on re-reading Tolkien and Lewis because I want to go back to those worlds and I kind of feel homesick for them. Maybe that’s a bit sad on my part, but it is a great credit to Tolkien and Lewis. Dr Jerry Root gave a useful explanation of the phenomenon here, which resonated with me : https://youtu.be/x21aTd36QMo
One way they do this is because the worlds they create have layers and – as Fr Stephen pointed out in a recent article – are underpinned by a deep hierarchy, much of which is only revealed as the story goes on, and some of which only ever remains hinted at. With Tolkien I think it is the idea of a much richer history and mythology behind LoTR that gets expansion elsewhere, mainly in the Silmarillon. (But the fact is that LoTR is a much easier read because it is a story at a particular time – hypostasis and all that.) With Lewis, there is even in the stories those ideas of the deep magic, and the Emperor beyond the sea. But under that I found Michael Ward’s 7 planet medieval astronomy thesis pretty compelling about the structure of the Narnia books (there was a whole documentary on this, but this 3 minute thing gives the essence https://youtu.be/-I2qGfE_Xic ). Layers.
And then with the good authors there are always transcendent episodes, often at less flashy times. Like when Frodo and Sam are in Mordor and for a brief time the oppressive darkness clears and they see the starlight and realise that there is a greater reality than the one they are currently dealing with. Or their entry into Lothlorien. That effect for me has perhaps been most explicitly described in this passage from “A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula Le Guin when the young aspirant protagonist Ged has just entered into the School for Wizards (no, not Hogwarts!) for the first time:
“The court was partly paved with stone, but was roofless, and on a grass plot a fountain played under young trees in the sunlight. There Ged waited alone some while. He stood still, and his heart beat hard, for it seemed to him that he felt presences and powers at work and unseen about him here, and he knew that this place was built not only of stone but of magic stronger than stone. He stood in the innermost room of the House of the Wise and it was open to the sky. Then suddenly he was aware of a man clothed in white who watched him through the falling water of the fountain. As their eyes met, a bird sang aloud in the branches of the tree. In that moment Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the water falling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirred the leaves: it seemed to him that he himself was a word spoken by the sunlight.”
That passage makes several of Fr Stephen’s points – especially in the last two paragraphs of his article – about as well as one could wish for, surely, not to mention describing how I sometimes feel during liturgy, and elsewhere!
Another reason why great high fantasy works is because, as many have pointed out, the stories often work at an archetypal level, which works as long as it is real, and not too obvious. Again, Le Guin wrote a great essay many years ago in which she pointed out that the story of Frodo and Sam and Gollum going to Mt Doom, is really four aspects of a person. Frodo (the ring bearer) and Sam (his supporter) are the two and sometimes arguing sides of the positive side, while Gollum increasingly turns into Smeagol and Deagol (slinker and stinker as Sam calls him) who have internal discussions on the shadow side. All of them are bound in the journey together to Mt Doom, and in the end it’s the shadow side which – for all it’s corrupted greed and evil – saves the day when Frodo finally gives in at the end to the call to power. Yep, that story runs really deep. But none of it is obvious unless you really think about it, but it registers in the heart. Resonances anyone?
Sorry for that really long piece, but as you can probably tell this is a topic of great interest to me and, as usual, Fr Stephen has pressed a great many buttons. (All his fault! :-)).
As a final comment, I think that really exceptional poetry works the same way. I just posted my first YouTube clip which is of Jeremy Irons reading the last stanza of East Coker. It also raises many of the themes discussed above – and just works. It bears several listenings for that soaking in effect to work. I think I want if for my funeral! https://youtu.be/SbQsnYnoE7g
Thank you for the back story (true story) about the Exorcist. Yes, we sometimes hear in the Hollywood versions ” based ” on a true story. Meaning there will be embellishments.
I smiled at the part where the boy said he saw St Michael the Archangel chase the demon away. St Michael is my patron Saint. Awfully thankful for that.
As for your ending statement about the sci-fi B movies – agreed!
Of all the things for which I’m grateful in my travels – the closest to my heart have been my two trips to England (though it seems like more). I have no doubt that I would have a good experience of many European locations – but England is where I’ve been. I have to confess a very deep pain when I visited the Churches (Anglican), or the ruins of monasteries and minsters (Henry VIII and Cromwell), and for very similar reasons. I think both Lewis and Tolkien (as well as a number of others) had that same agony – feeling something of a world that had been lost. That world is not totally lost – it has shards and pieces remaining. And, of course, inasmuch as there was ever any truth in what has been shattered, it abides and cannot be shaken.
In America, that most modern of all lands, there really are no shards and pieces. It was settled by moderns, where the first non-kingdom and secular land was constructed. I recognize that there was something here before Europeans came – but the land was scoured (at least here in the East) of their memory.
I suspect that the American reading of Tolkien, Lewis, etc., has to be different in some way – in that it is so far removed from our experience. That it resonates so deeply, however, is a testament and a sign to the fact that even now – the Reality resides in our hearts, as something like a noetic memory.
In my own life, several things happened to me over the course of about 3-4 years. First, was my encounter with classical Anglicanism at age 15 – in very stark contrast from the plainess of my rural Baptist upbringing. Second, was reading Tolkien and Lewis, which began somewhere around that time. Third, was the encounter with the Charismatic Movement and the Jesus Freaks, within whose teaching the notion of the Kingdom of God as present among us was prominent.
It took some years to work through the various errors – nonetheless, all of things happened almost simultaneously, and just as I was entering adulthood. No doubt, it formed much of my inner life.
Forgive me, but the memory of that ‘something’ that was in this land before it was ‘settled’ by the English…that ‘something’ being the Native’s, their memory has not been scoured. A brutal attempt was made to eliminate their presence, but they survive. And like the Valley of Dry Bones, they rose again and they speak. But you need ears to hear.
If you ask me, it is those very people who preserved for this land the Reality we speak of. It is a remembrance that is real (as Fr Schmemann describes ‘remembrance’) , and present in the very dust of the ground.
So many things have corrupted our ability to hear. We are tone deaf, have eyes wide shut, and our nous sleeps. You are correct…the American reading of Tolkien etc is different. That’s if they are even read. I have no idea of the stat’s but I would venture to guess that the numbers are moderate to less. But all is not lost. If we had a brain in our head, we would look to our Native People to be enlightened to Reality.
One time in (a mainline) seminary a group of us took a trip to a Native reservation up north and visited an Indian elder there who told us a story of a time he was asked to cleanse a house of evil. After describing the rituals he used, we were somewhat awed and one of us asked, “Where can we learn more about these ancient rituals?”
He replied, “I used holy water and incense. Don’t they teach you about the Church in seminary?”
Your point is correct. It is why I was careful to delimit my observation with “particularly in the East.” The native American presence in the Eastern US is extremely negligible. For most of the area, it’s as though they were never here.
Among the things that I’ve done in my profession as an academic chemist was to explore the how’s and the why’s that the chemistry departments had the populations, the demography, that they had. Even the subfields, ie, physical chemistry, organic chemistry, theoretical chemistry, etc, had spontaneously populated identifiable different demographics. For example, far more women populated physical chemistry rather than organic chemistry. However, the reality of the social structure was hidden in that while it existed, no one mentioned it. While there are reasons for this, certain pressures, so to speak that lend themselves to this structure, the presence of those pressures usually are not brought into casual conversations. The reason, I believe that these realities are not brought up isn’t some sort of conspiracy, I think, but a commonly held belief that the work of science is ‘above’ (or lies outside) social pressures and social construction.
The belief that the endeavor of science lies outside of social pressures and constructions (including beliefs) is tightly and tenaciously held in science. The effect of such a belief invokes a kind of blindness, which paradoxically (at least as it would seem within these fields) comes to light on some occasions when we attempt to use ‘poetic diction’ to describe atomic phenomena.
One such occasion revealing chemists’ beliefs happened when I was graduate school. I was asked to take a national level exam intended for evaluating incoming first year (freshmen at the undergraduate level) students. Since I had training in graduate level physical chemistry, I was asked to take the exam for the purposes of evaluating the exam’s effectiveness for evaluating student knowledge and misconceptions. I got one question ‘wrong’. The question probed whether the expansion of an atom was correlated in anyway with the expansion of a heated balloon. The writers of the exam intended that the so called ‘correct’ response was there could be no expansion of an atom because, they believed, “atoms don’t expand”.
The so called correct answer was false. When I mentioned this to one of the writers of the exam, they were shocked at my stupidity. The writers were predominantly organic chemists. So I had to explain to them why and how an atom expands. When I did this, they finally had to agree. (And thank God that they did!!)
What went wrong in the first place? How was it that they didn’t catch this error before I mentioned it? They all had PhD’s and technically were not stupid, but well respected (which was why they had been asked to write such an exam). The conversation about the how this happened didn’t happen because at the time I wasn’t interested in belaboring what was already an embarrassing situation. (Afterall, I was a graduate student and wanted to graduate!)
But the question in my mind lingered. For a time in my graduate work I pursued the question about how we model unseen atomic phenomena in our minds. I speculated that the errant chemists were likely influenced by a pedagogical model often used to explain how atoms behave when they are in a heated vessel. We describe them as behaving like “billiard balls” ricocheting against the walls of the vessel like the balls against the side of a pool table. Billiard balls are hard spheres and their circumference doesn’t really budge (to our visible eyes) when they hit each other or the walls of the pool table. So it was, I speculated, that the common use of the pedagogical model created a “reality” for these chemists and with its common use, created a truth that wasn’t real.
The belief, and this is my point, was strong enough that an entire committee, not just one chemist, agreed to the reality, the belief itself was ‘under their radar’. The exam was published and implemented by the largest organization in Chemistry in the country. It was sent out to universities and already in use across the nation to evaluate preparedness of incoming students into first year chemistry courses.
The culture within science (we can insert modernity here I think) inculcates a belief to hold this model of the unseen as “truth”. The model itself, not necessarily the evidence acquired in experimentation (although these can go wrong also), was a social construction, an interpretation as a means to explain the unseen. All models, and I should emphasize this, all models we use in science are incomplete. They are never ‘the fullness’ of the reality we attempt to describe. Unfortunately some of us scientists don’t know this.
But the humble do.
Thank you Father. Your point is well taken about the locality.
It is interesting, that all that seems to remain (back east, my birth place too) are ‘names’. A town, and a mountain range, in the county I was raised has the name ‘Ramapo’. Not once in all the years I’ve lived there did I hear where that name originated from. Neither did I inquire. That name is just one example of a multitude of names that indicate our native origins.
As such, I recall the significance of a ‘name’ . It is more than an inscription of letters. A name is a Being, a Thing. A People. A Person.
That, Father, is part of my reason why I say even in the East, even when it looks like the last vestiges of a time past no longer lives, in Reality, It very much lives.
Father, I’m afraid I have taken a bit of a turn away from the topic of conversation. Reading your responses above to Eric and the others, I said to myself “He is ‘in his element'”! You are the most forthright when you are in that place. You have something definitive to say, and you say it. I like that And it is a joy to see.
So I thank you for giving me the opportunity to divert a bit to make a point.
As always, the conversation at the blog is enjoyable; as always, rich!
Sorry, one more thing…
Oh how I love when you ‘get going’!
Yes, you are ‘in your element’ too. That’s when things flow naturally.
You said a lot…I read it slowly, because of its worth, in order to get your point.
Thank you, dear sister.
The atom expands! Straight from Sts Dionysus and Maximus. Good stuff!
Father and Paula,
It’s said among the Florida Seminoles that they never lost a war with US soldiers. But I suspect the real truth was that the everglades in southern Florida was just a good place to hide. (For a time anyway)
How many times have I heard the political speech “to make America great again”? More times than I want.
Thank you for your sweet words of encouragement earlier and again!
Forgive me I haven’t read either St Dionysus or St Maximus. Do they speak about atoms? You’ve definitely piqued my curiosity!
Yeah Dee…and the Seminoles apparently didn’t fear the ‘gators’. Probably respectfully asked permission to enter their ‘home’.
While we’d ask, “how’d they ever survive”?!
The ‘gators’ must’ve sensed something…you know, like the animals did the Saints…
Dee… re Sts Dionysus and Maximus…
Yes, they do! Give me time to fish for some articles and I’ll send them to you.
Forgive me. I’ll mention one more thing. I’ve always wished for more poetic language and less mechanistic language in physical chemistry. Perhaps for that reason, I’ve never scolded students for saying things like “carbon likes to have four hydrogens”. It seems to me when they talk in this way, they are truly attempting to understand the world, not so much to become a co-creator, but as a participant in an
Dee… they speak about expansion and contraction. It is all tied in with Logos, logoi and God’s ‘energetic procession’ .
Paula, that’s fantastic. I’d love to read those articles!
The place names are significant. At the very least, they represent a presence when Europeans began naming things. In England, you can distinguish between Celtic place names as well as a few Roman-Latin place names, Anglo-Saxon place names, and Danish place names (the Vikings). They point towards the layers of settlement/conquest, etc.
Though we’re aware of the sad conquest history in America (it is relatively recent), in truth, most of the planet has been settled/conquered/resettled/etc. My DNA preserves traces of all of those British layers – as well as about 2 percent of a very ancient Neanderthal contribution (we don’t know exactly how that pre-history played out). We are pilgrims and wanderers. Our ancestors have pretty much played every role – settler and conqueror – enslaver and enslaved.
It’s how human history has been lived.
Dear Father…very good point about the ‘settler-conqueror’ aspect of human history .
While we do identify with our place of birth, we’d do well to remember that point, Father…that we are indeed all pilgrims on this earth.
Interesting that your DNA goes as far back as the Neanderthal! So much for being Anglican 🙂
And God knew all this from before the ages…
We better listen to Him 🙂
Yes, as an Englishman, to the place name comments. I grew up in a beautiful small town Kirkby Lonsdale. When the Vikings turned up, there was an old chapel on the sight ‘Kirk’ and it was ‘by’ the Valley ‘Dale’ of the ‘Lon” The River Lune as it is now. Lots of place names thereabouts were Kirk-bys. And the K is I think Norse
I moved to New Zealand, Dunedin – which is the ancient name of Edinburgh (slightly corrupted) – which may also be related to ‘Dunedain’ ?? Always happy to ponder a Tolkien link.
I think the essential point is that place names had a meaning which was in some sense embedded in Place and History. So we moved here from a village called Gisburn, which would once have probably been ‘Guys burn’ (Or the stream into the Ribble (burn) by which Guy lived 🙂 ) I could go on at (exceptional) length!
Best post and discussion in a while!
I struggled in various ways with the idea of utility and mystery growing up. For many years, I would not get a paying job because I felt that it would be dehumanizing and turn the gifts of God—even our own lives—into something bought and sold; it would be like contracting ourselves into slavery for money. Later, I worked on a project to “demystify” basically everything about myself, hoping that it would allow for some deeper connections (hint: it did not); much of my conspicuous internet presence still reflects the traces of that project. I’m still exploring those issues, though I believe I am much closer towards a healthy understanding in Christ of those things. One of the key ideas for me in separating the good language (eg, co-creating) from the theological distortion was to see the difference between doing things because of [created] reasons and beliefs (often phrased as doing something “for” God) and actually living, being, and acting directly in Christ. The former leads to a “Christianity without Christ”. The latter involves experience and participation in all things—pleasure, pain, times, places—without being subservient to those things and seems to lead to persecution—that’s definitely the right path!
Karen, thanks for the backstory of The Exorcist.
Dee, thanks for the notes about both teaching science more humbly (eg, “All models are wrong; some are useful.”) and also about some of the demographics I wasn’t aware of. My favorite metalloid is boron and I never made the connection regarding the gender of the female scientist who I get a lot of that elementary inspiration from.
Eric, regarding “there were no hobbits…[w]e are commanded to allow our gaze to unfocus from the surface of things, to perceive their logoi”, I think there is much to this. On one hand, I think the Hobbits make The Shire in a very real way: what matters is less wood vs steel than the hands who fashion, the culture that creates, and the people that inhabit. Similarly, on the other, I think it takes a Hobbit to see The Shire—not just to make it in the first place, but to be able to understand it, appreciate it, and even acknowledge it.
Ziton, interesting idea about the 7 heavens. One of the recent comment threads diverged into alchemy a bit and I have quite a bit of experience there; I even shoehorned it into one of my college papers a few weeks back (I got 100%!). A project I have been working on for years is to not only pull together the ancient elements with physical traits like color, number, cardinal direction, and even Platonic solid (adding in sphere and a few of the sneakier ones…; once I realized they come in pairs where the vertices and faces are inverted it was “easy”!), but relate that all to days of the week, spiritual themes, and even the Great Feasts [of Christ]. As of this year, I basically finished “solving” it for the for the more obscure traits of the first 8 elements/directions/days of the week/etc.
Michael Bauman, I believe that self-annihilation as such is *not* natural, or not exactly so. Creation is iconic, and thus kenotic. Even the 2nd law of thermodynamics shows this: energy is always *given* (hot -> cold) and never taken and any system tends towards harmonious, mutual giving where every body is giving [and receiving] equally (thermodynamic equilibrium). If this tends towards nothingness, it simultaneously reveals that we only really exist through self-emptying and that something else—outside of spacetime and creation itself—is required to fulfill creation at even the tiniest level. Modernity misses all this not because it looks at the natural world, but because it fails to look closely enough—deeper in and even beyond.
In response to your comments regarding your visits to England, my own experience in this respect was of an urban/rural divide. Church was different in rural communities and in part that was to do with buildings, age and the relation of the building to its space – they were ‘in place’, not merely built on a spare plot of largely anonymous land [sic] (not ignoring the great age of some church buildings in what are now called urban locations – York where modern buildings have not been allowed to dominate the skyline still has a Minster ‘in place’)
One of the churches in which I laboured was built at least as far back as the 12th Century, although my own musings presumed there had been a cross roads chapel there from as early as the 7th C. There was something about a spiritual reality woven into place – a sacramental quality to it all. It belonged and there were few in the village who even though they never worshipped on a Sunday, called it their own.
My other church was a C20 building – Arts and Crafts – but placed on the edge of a village which had largely grown up around the railways. The village had an industrial feel, and the church building and indeed its congregation had less sense of Place. It wasn’t the village church in the same way at all. There was something of the Artifice-ial about it
“I think both Lewis and Tolkien (as well as a number of others) had that same agony – feeling something of a world that had been lost. That world is not totally lost – it has shards and pieces remaining. And, of course, inasmuch as there was ever any truth in what has been shattered, it abides and cannot be shaken. …
I suspect that the American reading of Tolkien, Lewis, etc., has to be different in some way – in that it is so far removed from our experience. That it resonates so deeply, however, is a testament and a sign to the fact that even now – the Reality resides in our hearts, as something like a noetic memory. ”
Eliot again, perhaps the quintessential (educated) American who fell in love with the idyll of the England of his dreams (East Coker again – even his choice of village names betrays him!) which I rather suspect were some of his “old stones that cannot be deciphered” :
“And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
When I think of modernism it is perhaps “unpropitious” that maybe best encapsulates in a word how I feel about it. Going back to that YT clip I posted I can’t help but think that Eliot is right in his final summation (at least in East Coker) about what the heart’s deeper yearnings are with this stuff:
“Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.”
At the risk of encouraging even more Anglophilia, Jeremy Irons does do this beautifully!
Britain has other shards. The remnants of royalty, now deteriorated into something that is little more than “class,” does not preserve any true “hierarchy,” but something darker (though not rising to the level of evil – just sort of banal). There is a “veneer” of hierarchy, but it hides little more than celebrity (well-acted sometimes). America has its own “royals,” but here it is truly nothing more than crass wealth – though I did occasionally run across a sort of class snobbery when I ministered among the Anglicans. One Episcopal bishop commented about one of his priests who had converted to Orthodoxy, “Well! I certainly hope he loves bowling!” (gentlemen only play golf or tennis). It was a comment that spoke volumes. I sometimes joke that my 20 years of Episcopal ministry was 20 years “trying to pass for white.”
But Lewis and Tolkien were neither to the manor born, though both Oxford educated. Tolkien thought that, beneath the skin, Lewis was still a bit of an Ulsterman (and suspected him of a sort of inherited anti-Catholicism). That may have been, though, I think it does not come through in his writings.
The world that they sensed was completely passing away consisted of the last vestiges of the medieval synthesis. The 19th century and its Romanticism had given it one last breath – but it breathed its last on the killing fields of France, 1914-18. Europe has passionately pursued its death over the past few decades and the Christianity of most has been largely put to bed. Princess Diana’s funeral was a triumph of Hollywood over the Church – royalty had to bow to celebrity. It will, in the end, only survive as celebrity.
But the medieval synthesis (particularly as imagined in the Romantic thoughts of the 19th century) was not the real deal – at most it was a sort of pastiche. The synthesis had been unraveling for quite a while before the Reformation. What happened in the Reformatoin was not a break with the past but the unleashing of the forces that had been bursting at the seams for several centuries.
It is possible, I should add, to treat Byzantium and Holy Russia in a romantic fashion – imagining them to be something that they were not. Mostly, they were political powers and empires – whose emperors and tsars were, as often as not, a cause of stumbling for the Church. And, even when we look at the Church, we should not be romantic. There has been corruption of various sorts in various places for most of its history. We have never been provided with a corruption-proof Church – just as Jesus allowed the presence of Judas up until the end.
It is always to Christ, to the Kingdom of God, and its unfailing reality that we should attend. All of the sacraments of the Church, including the clergy, are gifts from God, and points of “thin-ness” (to use the Celtic phrase) where we touch God. But the whole world is “thin” when our heart attends to it in the proper manner – which requires repentance and the abiding desire for God – always and everywhere.
Nonetheless, it seems ok to me that we love the shards that we see, and even love the Shire, though it’s only a story in a book. So long as those things are used to remind us of what our heart truly longs for – and then we seek it.
Father, I think it a mistake to look at our civilization as shards or that secularism is solely Western. We are living in our own “Scouring of the Shire” to be sure but there really is quite a bit more than shards for the Church to work with but we have to reject the political and theological delusion that we have lived with since the Edict of Thessolonica in AD 380 that made Nicean Christianity the Imperial religion. Combined with Constantine’s refusal to be Baptized which would have brought him.under the authority of the Church and the seed of secularism began to flower.
The concomitant acceptance and propagation by the Church of the unholy idea of the synergy of Church and Emperor made secularism virtually inevitable. It made the Church an institution bound by the Ring and all but eliminated her prophetic voice which included the making sacred.
Prophets have still been called forth; St John Chrysostom, St
. Tikon of Russia and St John of Sam Francisco and Shanghai to me but three. Being a prophet though requires living the life of the Cross and means persecution.amd death giving God alone the Glory in and for all things. It is the prophet however who sees the wholeness of Christ in and through all things.
That wholeness is still there. The Founders of the US actually made a specific space for the voice of Christian prophecy under the First Amendment. We have not used it preferring the secular ideal (non-Jeffersonian) of “separation.of Church and State. An idea that has its origins ironically in the Edict of Thessolonica.
Thanks Joseph BT. Congratulations on your 100%! Your platonic solids related to days of the week and Feasts project sounds really interesting. If you haven’t already discovered it, I think you will enjoy Michael Ward at greater length here https://youtu.be/JDIy1VYbhe8 where he riffs a lot more on Lewis’ intricate medieval imagination and scholarship.
Father Stephen, thank you (again) for that long response, which I totally agree with. The last two paragraphs are a great reminder.
For me anyway, the point of that last stanza of East Coker was pretty much exactly what I think you were saying. In the lines just prior to the ones I last quoted he says:
“There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).”
So yes, there is a time for the shards and the Shire and the living of life here and now and things of beauty and of remembrance. They all have their place in the great movement. That said, I recall that even the elves were wont to sing in their hymn to Elbereth “we remember, we who dwell in this land beneath the trees, the starlight on the western seas”. So even those times, maybe particularly the time for evening under the starlight is meant to remind us of true reality, and draw us on. But really, at the end, what I feel more and more as this old man keeps on looking, is a desire for that further union, a deeper communion. even if that means I increasingly find myself on with the wind cry and the wave cry on the vast waters of the petrel and the porpoise.
Oh Lord, grant me a spirit of true repentance, complete obedience and an open and loving heart that I might evermore dwell in your presence.
Higher up and further in!
Your take on Constantine, etc. is boilerplate ecclesiastical history in liberal mainline seminaries. You even find it in fundamentalist Protestant circles–in other words, it’s a thoroughly modern take. After years of believing it blindly, a new idea started to emerge for me: try developing a historical imagination in which Constantine truly is a saint. Working on that really spiced things up for me, not to mention it turns out to be true!
Thanks for your comment.
I suppose you even tried to imagine what it would be like to live in the 2nd century Greco-Roman empire. A time of ‘beginnings’ for the Church. It is hard (but not impossible) to imagine.
I enjoy reading about Church history. And I’m afraid I am a terrible critic!
I can sit with the truth that we are all pilgrims in this age, where perfection remains veiled, but not the love of God. He continues to mold and shape His creation, everywhere, in all things.
I believe there are many saints who are not known to anyone but God.
St Constantine put himself out there as his duty called.
And the Church canonized him.
and St Helen, the Empress.
Very well, then…
God is wondrous in His Saints.
er, rather, the 4th century…
Yes, I do try, but I always keep in mind that finally there are many things about the mindset of a 4th century Roman citizen that are totally inaccessible to me as a 21st century American. I’m also aware of the steady diet of propaganda I’ve been fed since my youth. Not all propaganda (“that which is to be propagated”–like an apple tree!) is bad, but much of it is. And late 20th century American propaganda–which flattens everything into its narrow scheme–certainly is.
That said, I believe modern Christianity’s aversion to Saint Constantine is the result of the equality propaganda machine. As an Orthodox Christian, I’m much more inclined toward Church propaganda, and I’ve found it to be true and life-giving. But, again, I have no access to Saint Constantine’s inner life and I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to find myself in the position of the Caesar of a vast empire (thank God!). But I can trust God at work in the Body of Christ, and as best I can I do–including her decision to canonize Saint Constantine!
Well, Father after about 12 years of commenting, one clinker isn’t too bad.
You more than make up for it, Michael! Strange times. Strange thoughts. We’ll get through it together.
Those who canonized St. Constantine were far more aware of his faults and failings than we are. We have a tendency to misunderstand sainthood – as if “saint” means “without sin” or “not flawed” or that all saints can be seen as equal. It’s worth pondering the mystery of the Church’s canonization and honor of saints – not for what we imagine it should be – but for what it is. Among other things, it will teach us to “bear a little shame.”
Thank you, Father.
Yes, that’s what I meant when I said imagining myself into a world in which Constantine is a saint “spiced things up” for me. Even my understanding of sainthood (which had been a little boring and sterile, to be honest) took on new life.
St David, murderer, adulterer, repenter, psalmist, ancestor of Christ.
Definitely a mixed bag of accomplishments. But the last surpassed them all.
Hi, some thoughts that have been lingering for months. Just some history to share
When I went to college my goal was to get a PhD in English Lit one day and teach modern poetry. When I studied in Oxford as a junior I took poetry writing, a tutorial on Rembrandt, and also a Christian Mysticism seminar at St. Hilda, and walked past where CS Lewis taught. I was so lonely, existentially lonely, but met some people who helped shape me. The program was through the Center for Medieval and Renaissance studies and attracted students from Wheaton College, Protestants mainly. I remember telling one I was Orthodox and being surprised he knew what it was. He asked me if I had gone to hear the Bishop of Oxford talk the night before. I hadn’t, but I learned of Met. Kalistos Ware later, and have heard him 2 times at St. Mark OCA in Maryland. That moment with my classmate helped me realize Orthodoxy is special, which truly I did not know at the time.
Two of my classmates who I traveled with to Kells Ireland said something that impacted me forever. They turned a song off on the radio, or immediately changed it, and they explained that if a song had lyrics that God wouldn’t be happy with they couldn’t be happy with it either.
Having played years of basketball and being a member of the track team, music was part of getting ready for competition. My senior year I remember a teammate saying ‘this is a good song’ and I though of its violent language ‘no it isn’t and I ended up writing a 39 page independent study paper with the goal of saying no, it isn’t.
It is not possible to take certain words relating to misogynistic themes, turn them into action verbs, and use them as an indicator of success and happiness. I wrote my first paper in college about Rap music (an acronym for rhythm and poetry) as well as my last.
My suggestion here is that perhaps non-ergonomic is a possible word to use along with anti-creation. It simply doesn’t fit our bodies.
To me, on occasion, Howard University Radio ‘sounds like Washington’ (its tag line) but it is amazing to think of how rap music has permeated many aspects of culture. One rapper’s wife, a few years ago, said he was ‘playing a role’ in his music, like acting. But there is a big risk in that. I didn’t really listen to music for many years after writing that paper and I was so surprised to see a white 50ish guy on Jeopardy correctly answer a question about current rap music (I didn’t know it). The tiny building BET was housed in in Arlington broadcast images of wealth and glamour and promiscuity, and looked like little more than a nondescript building you would hate to work in. More like a shed, but made of bricks.
I learned years ago that the Arian heresy spread widely because of jingles, and I often think of that in relation to rap music and shifts in intimacy patterns among young people. When looking at the prevalence of abortion the music young people are exposed to is a big factor. I heard a dj recently say he was not insulting rap, but that everybody misses songs about love. I am glad he had the courage to say it. If you read comments on the beautiful late 90’s love song ‘Angle of Mine’ on YouTube many people say similar things. How would you know sustained love if you have never seen it—in a home, in another’s family, in (at least) a three minute song?
As a gentle note, where rap music of the 2000 era did have deep value was in expressions of lament.
I hope to read Poetic Diction one day.
Regarding complexity and Intelligent Design, the workings inside a cell far exceed the complexity of interaction we see with without a microscope.
I have enjoyed hearing my husband lecture about biology from home. The process of unwrapping DNA within a cell for cell division involves amazing little machine type things (dynamic I think) Everywhere we look deeper in something physical, in the body, in Chemistry, in space, I believe we will find more and more amazing, and more questions we simply can’t answer. The intro to the book Linked does a good job with that theme, Barabasi says scientists have taken apart nature and realized they have no idea how to put it back together. Knowing the parts does not at all imply understanding the whole.
Thank you, Father Stephen. I am glad to have this community. I loved in the life of St. Stephen of Perm how he wanted to visit St. Sergius but had to just wave from like 10 miles away, and St. Sergius was aware of it and greeted him back from inside the lunchroom. No physical proximity, but fellowship none the less.
Beautiful, Nichole. Intense. Kindhearted.
Love the stories and reflections. Thank you.
Dear sister…we wave 🙂 I am glad too.
“Barabasi says scientists have taken apart nature and realized they have no idea how to put it back together. Knowing the parts does not at all imply understanding the whole.”
As a scientist (research in the 80’s and 90’s, teaching in the 00’s) I have long maintained that a lot of what is claimed as a “scientific explanation” is really just close description.
It reminds me of the Medieval exam for aspiring physicians. One question posed to the aspirant was “why does opium cause sleep?”. The correct answer was “because it contains a dormative principal”. 🙂
Why does the Church some rulers as saints? That is a category which I and many have a problem with. Constantine refused his baptism, in part, because of the conflict he saw between being Christian and many acts required of a ruler. St Thedora had the eyes of her own son gouged out because he was a rival for her rule. Rulers do not seem to demonstrate consistent holiness as it seems saints should. Then I think of St. Dismas next to Jesus on his Cross and despite the violence and cupidity of his life was able to see and appreciate holiness.
I think our ultimate act of co-creation is found in that innate human faculty to be sacramental. The first step is to perceive holiness I think even in the most unlikely places, events and people especially our own hearts.
ssage, does opium not contain a dormative principle? Just because we can analyze the components a bit better is such recognition not a guide to beginning to understand more fully?
It seems to me that saying that opium makes you sleep because it contains something that makes you sleep is a tautological kicking of the can down the road. But I think I see what you mean.
sgage, it is only a tautology if it is a sufficient answer. To me it says there is something unknown that causes sleep. Part of our sacramental capacity as human beings is to wonder and seek to penetrate the unknown. A big part of my fascination with science comes from reading it’s history. There have always been such succinct statements of partially perceived reality. Anybody can give answers, especially wrong and incomplete answers. Our gift lies in asking questions. There is something, a dormative principle, that seems to cause sleep. What is that and how does it work? Another way of asking how does it work that my father taught me and was crucial to his medicine was “How is it connected to other things and how can those connections be realized and used to help others. ”
That is what I see.
Of course there will be those who are soporificaly satisfied with tautologies of various types in science, theology and faith. Cannot the statement “God is love” be a similar tautology if we leave it at that?
Humorously, science can only guess why we ever sleep. Often when we finish with a scientific explanation, questions remain. The cultural narrative that is also part of science might stop the conversation at some point thinking that enough questions have been asked.
But, for example, stopping at the molecular level might be considered end of conversation for some. Others would want to go deeper. And, if we finally go as deep as is possible with present sub-atomic knowledge, we still hit a dead end – because we don’t know.
The “dormative principle” belonged to a larger narrative in which “principle” had a larger meaning. In studying plants and minerals, it was vitally important information.
Yes, Father. If I may expand a bit further from an historical and cultural perspective what makes that dormative principal so attractive that entire cultures, economies and political policies have been crafted because of it?
On an existential level we take pain relievers because they relieve pain. Duh, right. I will stop now but I could go on for quite a long time.
“To me it says there is something unknown that causes sleep. ”
Except it was put forward as the answer to the question “why does it make you sleep”. Of course it contains something that causes sleep! It was not put forward as “What is that and how does it work? ”
OK, we’ve probably taken this as far as we can without going round and round. I am going to have a warm cup of something that contains a stimulating principal, here on this cold, rainy NH morning.
Saint Constantine’s journey to holiness was somewhat slow and a little adventurous, but the gestation of the original great grace he encountered, fully bloomed towards his last days.
One must keep in mind that even to merely abolish the long-standing Christian persecution, was a profoundly radical move for a Roman Emperor at that time.
I will relate a noteworthy bit of history.
A few years before his actual baptism –which was in his last days (and let me note that he never wore his Royal Garments again after that, not until his last breath, but remained with the baptismal ones for those last days)-, in the year 325, at the first Synod, h entered the synod and noticed most of the Fathers who were there were maimed and crippled. Some had ears missing, others were missing eyes or a nose, another would shake hands with the left as the right arm had been chopped off, and others still, were not able to get up from their seats to pay respect, as their legs were paralyzed from the tortures they had sustained while confessing their Faith.
The emperor was profoundly surprised and shaken and asked in in awe: “Why are almost all the Bishops who came to the Synod so horribly disfigured?”
Only to be told that they were all martyrs (“Witnesses”) and Confessors.
The Holy Emperor was so moved that copious tears started running down his cheeks. He got up and approached the Bishops. He knelt and kissed their paralyzed legs, the empty sockets of their eyes and their amputated hands and sat as the “last one” in a low seat, watching the works of the Synod.
Dino, thanks for the reminder. I have little problem with Constantine but the ruler saints are a distinct category. Quiet different from all others. It can cause and has from time to time caused a disconnect for me and others.
God is merciful.
I think a similar problem can be encountered to a degree with all saints that have not clearly demonstrated the absolute life (i.e. the total consecration depicted in the lives of monastics and the ends of martyrs).
However, there exist many saints that were already on the road to sanctity while still remaining within contexts that were not ‘absolutely’ consecrated (in the sense of the monastics and martyrs), e.g.: soldier/warriors, married saints (monogamous but without living full chastity or eventually becoming monastics), doctors, farmers, customary people who put up with difficulties and tribulations patiently, and obviously ruler saints too…
During Jusgement, the lazy monastic will be automatically judged by encountering a similar (more coscientious) monastic and the (harsh) ruler by a similar (less harsh) ruler.
“During Judgement, the lazy monastic will be automatically judged by encountering a similar (more conscientious) monastic and the (harsh) ruler by a similar (less harsh) ruler.”
Hmmm…that ought’a make one think.
There goes that ole ‘mote in the eye’….
Father, elaborating on the theme you describe in your last comment:
I suspect that in some cases, that is, some scientists (the not so humble) might believe that they can possess or understand the “essence” of material reality. Given the vastness of the unknown (eg dark matter, dark energy, etc), the best that we can do is describe what we are capable of ‘seeing’ or describing is its workings and not its essence.
I’m trying to grapple with my understanding and the traditional understanding of hypostasis.
Perhaps I should add that I don’t intend to mean that there is any reality apart from God.
Father please forgive me if my statements are too convoluted. I’m trying to work out an understanding of what we do in science when we attempt to describe ‘reality’. Is it too far fetched to have both a theological and scientific description? Noting the fact that the endeavor might not have much appeal in some science circles.
Nevertheless, if we make such an attempt, is it proper to say that we (who are lovers of Christ) attempt in science to describe God’s workings? Or is that going too far? Is it possible without becoming deeply mired in the mud of modernity?
In my teaching of science, I always tried to emphasize the differences among Science the methodology/tool for investigating physical phenomena (what I call Science the Verb), Science as the body of theories and ‘facts’ (always provisional!) thereby developed (Science the Noun), and Scientism – the pernicious belief that only science has ‘the truth’, that if it can’t be shown by science it isn’t true or doesn’t exist, and if there are things we don’t ‘know’ now, well, we will some day. You know, because science.
Interestingly enough, I only ever knew very few working scientists that were Scientistic in that sense. Mostly it seems to be people who want to make sure every one knows how Scientific and Progressive and Modern they are.
sgage, while I had never really thought about it before, it really makes a lot of sense that scientism is most prevalent among non-scientists.
Thank you for your thoughts! Indeed you have made a good description separating the ‘doing’ from the creation of theory based on evidence and Scientism.
Perhaps it’s due to the field I’m in or the locations where I’ve worked in the past, but I’ve had a lot of exposure to people clinging to scientism. Sometimes it was a bit of a bummer. I think you might be onto something in your words “working scientists”, those who don’t share such a mindset.
Currently I’m not so hemmed-in by people who ardently hold on to such thinking. And I’m grateful for it!
“We have a tendency to misunderstand sainthood – as if “saint” means “without sin” or “not flawed” or that all saints can be seen as equal“
Perhaps this is why the Church named St Constantine equal to the Apostles
Or perhaps, we fail to understand why that term is applied to a saint. Of course, the Apostles are not without sin, either. They are holy, etc., but hagiography, rightly written, is not make-believe. Indeed, we often learn as much about serving Christ through the flaws and failings of saints as we do from their perfections. St. Constantine is called “equal to the Apostles” because of the effects of his edict making Christianity legal. He was not their equal in teaching, nor in martyrdom, nor in theology, etc. But, the grace-filled action of his political action yielded a hundred-fold fruit. “Equal” has a very limited meaning in that appellation. St. Mary Magdalen is “equal to the Apostles” because she witnessed the resurrection and told the Apostles. And so forth. The language of the Church often has a quite specific meaning – which, taken out of context and misapplied simply becomes error.
Though, do note, I have no argument with the fact that we venerate St. Constantine. I defended that. I’ll add to this that Byzantine style (where many such titles evolved) is, as a matter of language, typically given over to expressions of exaggeration. It’s actually considered one of the hallmarks of Byzantine Greek. Read any letter from the Patriarch of Constantinople and you’ll see what I mean – the use of exaggerated titles and such would seem passingly weird in any other context. But – it’s just Byzantine style.
Thank you Father for that reply to Nikolaos. I found it helpful, and elegantly precise. I must admit that I share some of Michael Bauman’s general reservations about ruler (and military) saints in part because temporal power and violence and the cross seem almost the opposites. Your comments have genuinely helped me with that anxiety. I am wondering whether there might be an article in this?
When I was traveling through Cyprus a few years ago one thing I was surprised about was just how prevalent and venerated St Constantine (usually paired with St Helena) seemed to be. My impression was that he was among the top half dozen or so most visible saints there (St George and St Michael also seemed very visible). I wondered why – and whether it had anything to do with the Cypriots’ recent history with Turkey, which if true was both understandable but, if so, also slightly discomforting to this westerner who does not share the history or local concerns. I suppose that in itself suggests a lesson about being cautious in going behind the church’s wisdom too much.
I have no ability to discern God’s criteria to glorify His Saints. I do not understand why St John the Baptist is the greatest amongst men, why St Paul has not been named “theologian”, why some monastics are named “great”.
In my simplified thinking, I try to consider how hard it must have been for St Constantine to accomplish what he did in the time he lived and what amount of courage it must have taken. Another pointer is the popularity of his name in Greece.
Fr George Metallinos, who recently fell asleep in the Lord, wrote about St Constantine and you may find it useful
It is a mistake, I think, when Protestants or others begin to muse about St. Constantine’s actions legalizing Christianity and making it the official religion of the empire as a mistake. (And then they’re off to the races with imaginings about what would have been better!). In point of fact, there simply was not a possibility for the Emperor, having come to embrace Christianity as the truth, not to make it the official religion. For one, the empire (the State) had always been seen as an essentially religious entity. The same was true in Israel, and, as far as I can see, every ancient government. There was no such thought as “secular.” Indeed, that thought would not occur until it sprang out of the Protestant mind in the 18th century – and was (and is) perhaps, a heresy.
There were many temptations that accompanied Christianity as the religion of the empire – and those can easily be rehearsed. But taking up that difficult task itself was not the temptation. The modern state, as a secular fiction, is not neutral, or without religion. There really never can be such a thing. Everything and everyone has a “god.” The secular god is very dangerous – perhaps more than any of the old pagan gods. We have plenty of temptations ahead of us. St. Constantine’s actions were, I believe, clearly the workings of Divine Providence. That is the clear teaching of the Orthodox faith. However, it did not remove the many temptations that came with it. They are still with us – only now – the state deals with the temptations while laboring under the heavy burden of many false gods.
Joseph Barabbus, annihilationism has no basis in anything. It is the result of modern iconoclastic psychosis and is reveling in the sickness. A group of annihillationists actually released poison gas into the Tokyo subway many years ago. There have been individual occurrences of people with COVID intentionally trying to infect others.
What “synergy” was involved in Lazarus’s resurrection?