Infinite Recursions

I think it was Stephen King who wrote or said that, if one wants to be successful as a writer, one needs to writing like a (second) job. I’m not one for taking people’s advice on reputation alone, especially on something so deeply personal and resistant to generalization as writing. Nevertheless, I think (maybe “worry” is a better word) that he’s right.

In light of that, I’m considering starting a Patreon. Through that medium, I’d add some focused posts on my personal worldbuilding endeavors, including fiction and roleplaying rules for those settings. Avar Narn would, of course, be a particular focus, but I also have a handful of additional settings I want to develop—especially for roleplaying (mine and others’). Posts would be at least weekly, with deep dives into aspects of setting, maps, and much more for the enjoyment and use of patrons. I don’t know if I really have a critical mass for something like that to work, but I think it would be useful to me in several ways. First, the deadlines and accountability this could bring me would, I think, help my productivity.

I’m also reminded of a story about a Russian agent working for CIA case officers at the height of the Cold War. He’d regularly ask his handlers for money in exchange for his services, increasing the amount that he wanted every time he asked. Eventually, the Soviets found him out and did what they always did to suspected spies. The CIA officers rushed to his apartment to strip out anything that could link him to others before the KGB could recover it. As they did so, they found all of the money they’d paid him. He had never been the mercenary they’d expected; the money was his way of ensuring that the information he passed to American spies was worthwhile and valuable.

I’d like to think that that’s how Patreon would work for me—as a tangible indication that people are actually interested in my creative work. It would be nice to have some associated income—either to allow me to devote more time to writing and other creative endeavors or to invest in the settings themselves—for artwork and other needs that could allow me to produce professional-grade works—but I don’t expect the income derived therefrom to be a life-changer.

One of my reservations about taking the leap, other than the possibility that a lack of response becomes a de-motivator, is some release of creative control over my productions. Which leads me to the title of this post.

As I was thinking about the prospect of a Patreon, of what it would practically look like, I realized the fallacy of thinking about absolute creative control. Once a piece of art or writing is shared with others, it irrecoverably shatters into a number of pieces equal to the number of participants in the setting.

There is no single Middle Earth, no one Marvel Universe, no absolute Star Wars (just ask Disney). And this goes well beyond fanboy-ism and head cannon—the “feel” of a setting is going to be unique in some inexplicable way to each experiencer, even before we talk about fan fiction or roleplaying games set in that world.

And that’s not a bad thing—it’s a really fascinating one to think that every fictional world becomes infinite worlds, recursions of varying degrees all riffing in some core ideas.

Like all things, that makes the creative act both deeply personal and necessarily communal if it is to be enjoyed. That dialectic speaks to my soul, if I’m going to be honest, and all my worries about whether other peoples’ ideas creep into my own creations seems stupid, honestly, in the light of our corporate relationship between a setting with all of its idiosyncrasies created by our own idiosyncrasies, and the relationship that creates between each of us.

Frankly, it makes me want to create more, write more, give others more setting to make their own in their various ways and enjoy.

I think I’ll give Patreon a shot. We’ll see what happens.

The Panentheism of the Holy Spirit

Let’s start with a definition. Panentheism is a constructed word for philosophical and theological discussion that means, “all in God.” This is intended to be distinct from theism, which see God as separate from everything else, and pantheism, in which asserts that “all is God.” More specifically, pantheism may communicate simply that the ultimate reality of the universe is (an impersonal) God or that everything we encounter (even ourselves) are simply illusory manifestations of that only thing that exists: God. Please allow for the usual linguistic slippage in the use of words to intend such complex ideas, an apology that perhaps all theological and philosophical construct-words require. Panentheism intends to hold some ontological separation between the existence of things that are God and things that are not God while clearly seeing them as in relationship.

There are a number of Christian theologies that involve some degree of panentheism: process theology, Eastern Orthodox theologies, Christian universalist theologies, etc. I point this out to say that, as with most theological issues within Christianity, there are diverse viewpoints and interpretations, the topic is (of course) complex, and a blog post of this length necessarily oversimplifies. The thoughts below do not take their place from any previously-established theology, systematic or not, but may coincide with some of those theologies (read: the thoughts that follow are my own, so: (1) don’t blame anyone else for them; and (2) that does not mean that somebody didn’t think of them well before I did).

Panentheism, in a general sense, is attractive in Christian thought for a number of reasons. First, it tends to accentuate a personal God who interacts–that is, who influences creation and who is influenced by creation–rather than the impersonal creative force of the purely theistic “clockmaker god” who created the principles on which existence runs but who now has little to do with the created. If you’re curious about the “is influenced by” language above, I recommend taking a look at my brief treatment of God’s passibility in my previous post: The Name of God as an Answer to Existential Questions. At the same time, panentheism avoids the implication (and, when intended, the outright assertion) that there is nothing outside of or distinct from God.

Orthodox Christian theology (across denominations and interpretations, for the most part) argues that creation is to some extent separate from but related to Creator, that free will exists (as a requirement for any moral judgment upon mankind), that God is omnipresent and that God is personally and deeply interested in Creation and its ultimate fate. We do not need to resort to process theology (if that is a theology you consider “extreme”) to see a place for panentheism in Christian thought.

Nowhere in Scripture is a panentheistic idea stronger than in those passages that describe the Holy Spirit.

Paul is very clear that the Holy Spirit dwells within the believer (1 Corinthians 3:16, 16:19-20; 2 Corinthians 3:17; Romans 5:5, Ephesians 4:30), and this is taken as axiomatic by most Christians, I think. Indeed, this is the origin of the term “my body is a temple.”

Other Scriptures indicate that the Holy Spirit may act through a human being, but are also careful to remark that, when this occurs, the Holy Spirit and the human are separate, though the former may dwell within the latter. See 2 Peter 1:21; Mark 13:11; Acts 2:3-4.

The very point of the Pentecost story (and much of the Book of Acts, for that matter) is that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within a person gives the person power they could not have apart from God gifting it to them. Although, in the great scheme of things, if God created all things, then that’s necessarily true of all power, but we can avoid such tautologies for the present time.

At least within the United Methodist Church (and I suspect many other mainstream Protestant churches), our liturgy and understanding of God often attributes the title of “Sustainer” to God–support for this can undoubtedly be found in the Psalms. If we mean that, without God’s continued will for existence to exist, we would not, it’s only a short step from that idea to a panentheistic cosmology–it would be easy to argue that it that part of God that is within us, or that part of us that is within God, that sustains our continued ontology. This makes for an interesting interpretation of Jesus’ saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” though not one I have any intent of analyzing in this post!

A Panentheistic Holy Spirit and the Triune God
It is possible to point to panentheisms in other religions (some understandings of Hinduism, Kabbalistic Judaism, some Sufi and Ismaili forms of Islam). But panentheism of the Holy Spirit in Christianity has what I believe to be a theological advantage over all of those faiths (which statement is not intended to demean the value, meaning or beauty of those religions). That advantage is the doctrine of the Trinity (which proves theologically advantageous, if mysterious and mystical, in many other theological analyses as well). Why?

Because the Trinity does not allow the entirety of Christianity to be reduced to panentheism. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the nature of the Trinity, with its three distinct persons in inseparable eternal relationship, accentuates both the individual and the relationship itself. This underpins the idea that, if we should view the Holy Spirit as panentheistic in nature, we need to be careful not to see that as our whole relationship with God, or as a reality that diminishes the importance of our being unique and separate creations of God gifted with free will and self-determination by God’s forbearance to exercise God’s absolute power over us.

In essence, this is the best of all possibilities, isn’t it? Our individual objective existence and subjective experience have cosmic meaning and truth because we are independent of God. And yet, at the same time, God dwells within is and is always in relationship with us. If we want to view God through the lens of metaphorical parent, this balancing of allowing independence while providing support is what many of us would describe as the perfect parenting style. In our trainings as foster parents, we are told that this is the “authoritative” parenting style, as opposed to “authoritarian,” “permissive,”  or “neglecting” parenting styles (the four styles being arranged on an x-axis of supportive/unsupportive (sometimes representing as high or low “warmth”) and a y-axis of high or low expectations or control).

To put a simpler way, the Trinity reminds us that, although there is a panentheistic component to our relationship with God, we cannot define ourselves, God, or our relationship by reference only to panentheistic theology. To keep the length of this post down, I’ll keep this as a side note, but I think it bears stating: I don’t think that the Trinity should be used to oversimplify the ways in which we ought to think about our relationship with God. There is, potentially, a formulation under which one might argue that we have a theistic relationship with one person of the Trinity, a pantheistic relationship with the second person of the Trinity and a panentheistic relationship with the third, but such a structure is both too convenient a classification scheme and one that does not bear much scrutiny or the application of logic (to the extent that logic can be brought to bear to describe the mystery of the Trinity).

C.S. Lewis’ “Natural Law” as a Panentheistic Argument
I’ve referred to C.S. Lewis’s arguments about “natural law” on several occasions, his assertions that our conscience is often God speaking to us. It’s a short hop to call this the movement of the Holy Spirit within us, and then to link that with the panentheistic arguments above. Rather than reiterating his work here, I’m going to touch upon it lightly (done!) and move on.

Consequences of a Panentheistic View
What I’m really interested in discussing in this post (though I’ve taken my time in getting this point, I admit), are the theological consequences of a panentheistic view of the Holy Spirit.

God is Always with Us
I mean this in a very specific sense–that there is no time before God starts being with us always. Especially if we rely on C.S. Lewis’s “natural law” arguments, then God’s working of good within us is there from our very inception. Methodist theologian Albert Outler once lamented the difficulty–and therefore scarcity–of pneumatology in comparison with other theological inquiries (and particularly in comparison with inquiries into the other two persons of the Trinity), and perhaps this example reiterates his point, because I must admit plenty of mystery remains in harmonizing this view with the idea of Jesus “sending” the Paraclete to us on Pentecost.

On the other hand, I think we can safely say that the Holy Spirit is co-eternal with the Father and the Son in the Trinity and that the above “problem” with harmonization has–to the extent it can be–largely been resolved by arguments over the nature of the Trinity itself. For my part, I’d rather focus on two points here (by reference to previous posts):

(1) The idea that God works within us from our very creation causes some concern for the doctrine of original sin, at least perhaps in its traditional formulation. I find that Biblical support for ideas of original sin only really allow for an understanding of that concept in an existential sense–as beings possessed of a free (and often overly-self-interested will) and limited understanding, we are bound to sin–both willfully and inadvertently–until we are fully sanctified. I’ve written about this idea in regards to the narrative of the Fall in my post, “An Alternative Reading of the Fall,” and about the (partially) existential nature of sin in general in the post “Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?”

(2) This idea also bears upon doctrines of “total depravity.” To be honest, I’d rewritten this particular portion of the post several times in hopes of avoiding having to weigh in on the soteriological aspects of that term in Calvinist or Arminian/Methodist theologies and to focus on the more common sense of the term. But, given some of the conclusions I draw below, I decided that such avoidance was ultimately unworkable, so here we go:

Briefly, the difference between the two: Calvinism posits that, because of the Fall, man can do no good works because everything man does is entirely selfish. As a result, only by God’s predestination (“election”) can man choose to accept God’s salvation and be justified and sanctified thereby–after which point man can actually do good. On the Arminian side, the argument goes that, like Calvinism, man is in a state of total enslavement to sin after the Fall. However, because of God’s prevenient grace, God has freed mankind’s will from sin enough to be able to choose to accept God’s gifts of salvation, justification and sanctification of his own volition.

To be blunt, I find the Calvinist formulation to utter hogwash–this is the equivalent of God playing a game of semantics with God’s self and moving pieces around on a game table. It deprives the relationship between human and God of real meaning, our existence of the kind of meaning that requires our free will to be, and, ultimately–the analogy I want to use here is vulgar and I get blamed for blasphemy often enough as it is, so use your imagination.

The Arminian view is more convincing to me (imagine that, since I’m a Methodist), but ultimately I still think it views the theological issues in play from the wrong angles, unless we are to say that “prevenient grace” is intended to describe an existential feature of the human condition ordained by God rather than a divine remedial action.

The idea of a panentheistic Holy Spirit could certainly be used to bolster the idea of prevenient grace by providing a mechanism through which prevenient grace is enacted by God. However, that view would be exactly what I mean by a “divine remedial action.” I think it better to view the indwelling of the Holy Spirit from a person’s very creation as indicative of the depth of the relationship between created and creator rather than as a methodology for helping us to “be good.”

I’ve discussed at some length ideas of goodness and fallenness contrasted in my post, “The World and the World,” a rough draft of a chapter for the first theology book I intend to finish, refine and publish in the not-too-distant future. For extra credit (or more information about some of my thoughts regarding soteriological theology, see “Salvation and Sanctification.”

For now, let’s turn to the idea that, if the Holy Spirit is dwelling within us from the very get-go, as C.S. Lewis’s “natural law” theory seems to imply, then:

No Cosmological Duality
This is a phrase I’ve been hearing a bit lately in the new (new to me) thing I’ve been attending at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Houston, a thing called “Ordinary Life.” I’m calling it a thing because I know that I’d probably upset people if I called it a “Sunday School Class,” an epithet that it explicitly rejects in order to be a less-constrained, more welcoming approach to spiritual issues. If I understand it correctly (and maybe someone from that group will stumble across this and correct me if I don’t!) the term “cosmological duality” is intended to mean that traditional formulation of Christianity where:

God is Far Removed from Mankind
|                               Jesus had to die to make God like us again
|                                                        T
|                                                        |
|                                                        |
V                                                        |
Because humans screwed up and

(I hope you enjoy my makeshift graphic.) Cosmological duality is the idea that somehow God is unable or unwilling to be within us in our sinfulness and fallenness without Jesus “paying the price” for us. Elsewhere, I usually hear this referred to as “penal substitutionary atonement.” Generally, I think it could be more generally applied to views of Christianity that focus on God’s holiness and glory (and in effort to accentuate that holiness and glory posits humanity’s sinfulness and worthlessness), on God’s “entitlements” and not on God’s desire for relationship with us. To me, the beauty of Jesus, the beauty of the Christian faith as a whole, is the good news that, although God is entitled to all glory and holiness, God’s not so much interested in that as in love and relationship. That is a hopeful message; much more hopeful than “since you can’t help but break the rules, if you love Jesus hard enough, God will be forced to forgive you and will let you into heaven…perhaps begrudgingly.”

And this is where a panentheistic view of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit really brings things into focus. If we accept that view, and C.S. Lewis’s argument that conscience is one piece of evidence of that view and the existence of the Holy Spirit within us from our very conception (I mean this metaphysically more than physiologically), then we are presented with an image of God always reaching out to us no matter the state we are in, no matter whether we are consciously pursuing an understanding of Jesus and the God revealed in him, no matter whether we are Christian, or religious at all. That’s a God of Love.

Now, if this is true, then there are:

No Magic Words
The evangelical gold-standard of having someone “accept Jesus into his heart” by uttering some prescribed “magic words” really has no place in our theology. There is no switch-flicking moment that instantly transitions us from one existential condition (sinful, fallen, hopeless, unredeemed) to another (justified, sanctified, redeemed). (I want to make clear that I don’t intend to say that being “born again” isn’t a thing–Jesus himself talks about it. I just mean to say that it’s not a thing as fundamentalist evangelicals conceive of it).

It’s more complicated than that. And, if there’s anything I’ve learned in my time studying philosophy, religions and Christian theology, the answer to spiritual matters usually is, “it’s more complicated than that.” We have to start looking at the meaning of our faith, the character and intent of our God, the nature and design of Christ’s salvific work on the Cross, in a more complex, nuanced way. What we get is a set of assertions, arguments and “understandings” that are more ambiguous, less comprehensible, but by far more beautiful than any simplistic understand of God we had before.

For me, as I think my theological posts on this blog make clear, the lens that allows such careful and expansive investigation into all things spiritual or theological is the existential approach, founded on more brilliant minds who’ve come before me: Barth and Tillich are the readiest examples I’ve drawn upon, and developing into the theology I’ve been describing on the blog and calling, “New Mysticism.”

Existential Sanctification
If we look at the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in this panentheistic way (which I think is what we intuitively and colloquially tend to do as Christians), then think about what this means for the process of sanctification. I’ve argued in the past that I believe there is very purposeful divine intent in the relative ease (from our perspective at least) of gaining salvation (being freely offered by God and only needing to be accepted by us) compared to the decided difficulty of seeking sanctification (that is, becoming “Christ-like” and “holy.”)

But consider this–under this panentheistic view of the Holy Spirit, God has always been with you and whispering to you about the righteous path. Sanctification, in actuality, then, is starting to listen to those continual revelations direct from God to you, starting to try to put them into practice.

This brings us around to Luke 17:21, in which Jesus says, “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” I’m really looking forward to spending some time with that passage in the context of existential Christianity and the idea of sanctification, which I’ll do soon.

What do I mean by “New Mysticism”?

Today I was reading an interview between CNN’s Daniel Burke and comedian Pete Holmes, star of HBO’s “Crashing” and author of the new book Comedy, Sex, God.

I want to copy for you here a portion of that interview that really struck me. He says: “But what we’re talking about is symbol systems and labels. And those are good; those are helpful. (But) we’re trying to get our inner reality to respond. So in the book, I’m trying to rescue some Bible verses, I’m trying to rescue some ideas of Christ. I’ll always get a lot juice out of rescuing something that Jesus said. It’s healing to me, psychologically, to do that with words that were used to convince me that I was in danger of going to hell. It might be my favorite thing to do, is to go like, “Oh my God, it was right there.” We just didn’t have eyes to see. We didn’t have ears to hear. We were listening wrong. We were listening with an agenda. We were listening with our egos. We were listening with a deep desire for membership and identity and certainty. We weren’t looking as the mystics are. And when you look at the Bible the way a mystic sees it, it opens like a flower and you’re like, whoa.”

This really resonated with me, as did the general story of Mr. Holmes’ spiritual journey from evangelical Christian upbringing to spiritual voyager. His use of the idea of mysticism also struck a cord.

I have casually remarked in my posts on this blog that I have given the (haphazardly) systematic theology I am slowly developing the name “New Mysticism.” Pete Holmes’ comment above (and perhaps his comments more broadly) seems to provide a good entry point into discussing what I mean by that term.

I am not qualified to be a mystic in the classical sense. I cannot sit still long enough to meditate. I am too busy (over-)thinking to calm my mind. I have too strong a sense of self to be satisfied with the idea of the unio mystica, though I have a deep desire to feel a strong connection with God. I have no supernatural gifts that allow me to see the fabric of reality other than through a glass, darkly. I have no divine message to share, only the thoughts and feelings of a human inescapably drawn to pondering the nature of existence and reality, subject to my all-too-human limitations in finding definitive answers to the many questions I ask. I am no mystic as the term is often intended.

Why “New Mysticism,” then? As I’ve laid out in a Brief Outline of My Theology, my theological approach is both existential and epistemologically skeptical; some amount of mysticism seems an inexorable conclusion from such a starting place.

In existentialist thought, we acknowledge that our understanding of all things is mediated by experience, by imperfect sensory apparatus analyzed by imperfect minds. We must acknowledge some slippage between what we perceive (the existential) and what actually is (the essential).

Skepticism of our ability to know follows closely. I’m not one to take epistemological skepticism to absurdity (if our knowing is flawed, how can we know that we know?), but I do acknowledge that the human mind has its limits.

The philosopher David Hume once made the argument that we cannot definitively know that causation exists. What we observe is a (very) strong correlation of events. To borrow his analogy, we see the cue ball hit one of the other billiard balls and then the second ball begins to move. Through math and science, we can even protect the force and direction of that movement based upon the angle of impact, speed and rotation of the cue ball (and myriad other details, such as the evenness of the pool table). But we have no way to, beyond any doubt, prove that the cue ball is causing the other ball to move rather than that we are only observing a very consistent “coincidence” that is caused by forces and factors we cannot perceive.

We cannot live and function should we focus on that doubt, of course. We must live with the very great probability that this is in fact causation (it hasn’t failed us yet, after all). We cannot meaningfully interact with the world around us, certainly cannot plan such interactions, without taking for granted causation exists and we believe it to.

Do not be misled into thinking that I am making some argument against either knowledge generally or science specifically; experience seems to demonstrate (if not prove) that we can know some things reliably enough and science is in fact the best tool to understand the nature and action of the world around us.

But there are limits to the sorts of questions that the human mind may understand. Science can show us with relative certainty that the universe began with the Big Bang. It cannot, no matter the angle at which we hold it nor the manner in which we dissect it, tell us why in any sense behind the mundane and lifeless. The question of, “If the Big Bang caused everything in the universe, what caused it?” stretches to infinite strings of causation or some manner of causation we cannot perceive. Either way, the answer is beyond us. When God tells us that God’s name is “I AM” or “I AM THAT I AM”, that is a mystical answer to a question that defies logic. There is nothing we can understand about God in any temporal sense; God simply is God. We must either accept or reject that, there is no way to prove it or explain it.

It is here that we find the necessity of mysticism; that is: a belief that some knowledge is not susceptible to human logic, that there are things we may know from experience that we could never prove to anyone else, that there are ways of understanding apart from cold logic. I know of no other way to describe such things other than “mystical.” But it strikes me that that mysticism is not entirely the same as the term has been formerly understood. It may also be a mode of experience, but in my mind it is first a worldview, one without which we are not open to such modes of experience, no matter the labels we place on them.

And so, I find my theology to be firmly rooted in the mystical, the supernal, the sublime. How could it be otherwise? The spaces between cold logic are where faith, hope and joy come alive, where we find (or create) the only meanings that, at the end of the day, really matter to any of us.

This mysticism is different, perhaps, from the mysticism of the past in another way. It does not dismiss, nor reject, nor argue against logic and science, instead recognizing that these are God-given tools to develop understanding to the extent that we can. If there is a God, and God created everything that exists, then every rule of science, every geological fact, every evolutionary development represents in some manner the will of God. Understanding the operation of the natural world may thus give us some understanding of the nature of God. Even if it doesn’t, such understanding proves quite useful, and we’ll need more of it if we are to hope to undo much of the harm we, as a species, have done to the world.

This “new” mystical approach allows science and faith to co-exist by understanding that, just because a story in the Bible is not historical fact does not mean that is not True in the most important, dramatic and essential ways by telling us something meaningful about existence itself. If only we are able to understand, whether by logic or by divine revelation.

“New Mysticism” is intended as a middle road between an unquestioning faith and an equally unquestioning materialism, one that gives fair play to all manner of knowing and seeks to incorporate all of the experiential, the existential, into a meaningful whole.


Rethinking Tolkien

One of the things that’s been keeping me from posting on the blog lately is that I’ve been teaching a Sunday school class on Christianity in Tolkien for the past several weeks and my research and writing time has been in part devoted to preparing worthwhile material for that (I’ve also been slowly working on an Avar Narn short story or novella which you’ll see in the future, but that’s for another time).

I wanted to share some of my thoughts and realizations in preparing for teaching the class here. The late revelation of some of these ideas is a bit shameful to me–I’ve long had all of the evidence needed to come to these conclusions and yet somehow failed to do so until recently. I’m trying to keep that thought humbling and not humiliating; we’ll see how it goes.

In particular, I had long held Tolkien to be an exemplum of that easy trope of “epic” fantasy–evil and good painted in black and white without gray. My more recent (and mature) study of his works has revealed his writings to be anything but. Instead, they are indicative of the nuance of good and temptation within man’s soul, with many permutations of the characters falling momentarily to evil ways only to recover themselves (Boromir, for instance) and with lasting temptation that claws at even the sturdiest of souls (Frodo and Sam). The variegated grays in his works have dashed my thought of my love for gritty fantasy as somehow an evolution from or response to Tolkien. Stylistically, perhaps, but not in philosophical approach or theme.

The first four lessons I’ve taught centered on the following topics: the Silmarillion’s creation story and idea of “Fall” (and–a topic very dear to me as aspiring theologian/fantasy author–“subcreation”), Tom Bombadil as unfallen Adam and the One Ring as Sin, Gandalf’s resurrection narrative, and Tolkien’s Christianization of the Anglo-Saxon mindset. Much (much) ink has been spilled on the first two topics and I cannot claim much thought there as my own, so I’ll focus on the latter two. If you’re interested in reading more about the first two ideas, I’d recommend Ralph Wood’s The Gospel According to Tolkien. As a second admission, I think the class had intended for me to follow that book a little more closely in my teaching, but I’ve taken them down the rabbit-holes of my own interests instead. Such a rebel, I am.

Gandalf’s Resurrection as Odin Christianized

It is tempting and popular to view Gandalf’s resurrection after his fight with the Balrog (told when he re-encounters Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn in Fangorn Forest) as a thinly-guised Christian story of death and resurrection. But Tolkien was adamant about disliking easy allegory when incorporating Christian Truth into his stories (it might be fair to say that he does this despite his own protestations, but his letters indicate a conscious attempt not to). The preface of the Silmarillion (actually a letter of Tolkien’s) says as much.

And we know that mythical Odin provided great inspiration for the character of Gandalf, both in his nature as wise instigator and magician and in his very appearance with the worn grey clothes of the wanderer and the pointy hat now inseparable from the idea of a wizard. To look for some other relationship back to Odin in Tolkien’s resurrection story seems a ready move to make.

Let me summarize the myth I want to refer to in particular: Odin’s discovery of the runes. For excerpts from the original texts describing this legend, click here, and spend some time on the Word and Silence Blog while you’re at it. And now my summary:

In his quest for knowledge, Odin decided that a sacrifice was necessary, so he pierced himself with a spear and hung himself from the branches of Yggdrasil overlooking the fathomless watery depths below. For nine days he hung suspended there, without food or drink or comfort, waiting for revelation to come. Finally, on the ninth day, he began to discern shapes in the water beneath him, the runes. These runes are both indicative of the power of written word (perhaps that must fundamental and far-reaching of technologies) and the representations of a powerful system of magic for which Odin would be remembered and revered.

We know in Norse culture that human sacrifices were made to Odin (known as blót, though this term is more expansive than the particular instance here). These humans were sacrificed by being pierced by a spear or hung from a tree, or both–almost certainly related to this legend of Odin. In some way, this makes Odin’s time on the tree a sacrifice to himself in the search for knowledge and transcendence, a self-driven (perhaps selfish) ascension.

It is this, I think, to which Tolkien obliquely refers in Gandalf’s narrative. Gandalf returns full of new knowledge and insight (he spends several pages detailing the plans and failings of the Fellowship’s major adversaries) but having forgotten much about himself (such as that he “used to be called” Gandalf). That he has become Gandalf the White (as he says, “Saruman as he should have been”) is about as plain an indication of ascension as possible.

But it’s important to note the differences between Gandalf and Odin. Gandalf’s fight is an external one, very in line with the “northern heroic spirit” we’ll discuss shortly. Despite this, Gandalf sacrifices himself for the Fellowship, not for his own ascension and aggrandizement. That ascension is the unexpected reward–and responsibility–given by Eru Iluvatar, the supreme God of Arda (the cosmos of Middle-Earth). It is in the nature of his sacrifice that we see Christianity creep into the Odin story–“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Yet, while Gandalf has ascended in some way, we cannot forget the fact that he has been resurrected with purpose–because his task “is not yet finished.” His ascension carries with it responsibility, not entitlement to reverence and worship.

This goodness and Christian virtue gives Gandalf the White the right to supplant Saruman as the head of the Istari, for Saruman has chosen the pursuit of power over the role of protector and counselor to which he was intended. After his return from the Abyss, Gandalf tells us as much, that Saruman’s pursuit of power has made him foolish, that his hope of seizing the ring and gaining advantage over Sauron has been lost (though he does not yet know it), and that his massed armies, though still formidable to Men and Elves, have revealed him as an enemy of Sauron rather than an ally.

In comparing Gandalf to Saruman, we are led to ponder Matthew 16: 25-26: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Two lines, Gandalf in the first, Saruman in the second.

So, by focusing Gandalf’s actions (and the “reward” that follows) outside of himself, takes the mythic construct of sacrifice that results in ascension exemplified by Odin on the tree and “purifies” it, taking those things that are good an virtuous even in the Norse story and, through the addition of love of others, refining the unvirtuous parts into something Christian and Good.

We see this general strategy throughout The Lord of the Rings (and Tolkien’s other works) in his general fusion of Anglo-Saxon virtue with Christian virtue.

The “Heroic Northern Spirit”

We don’t know as much about the Anglo-Saxon religion as we’d like. We know it has strong connections with the Old Norse religion, but we have a paucity of evidence about were the variations and boundaries lie. Much of the Anglo-Saxon literature available to us was written by Christians, so it’s difficult to know the extent to which the “heathenry” of those texts as Christianized in the retelling. This is something medievalists and Anglo-Saxon scholars–Tolkien included–have long debated.

We do have more evidence of the Anglo-Saxon mindset, generally speaking. I’m going to point to a few examples with that we know Tolkien was intimately familiar with.

The first is an Anglo-Saxon poem called “The Battle of Maldon,” based on an historical event. In that poem, the Anglo-Saxon leader Byrhtnoth is tasked with fending of a warband of invading Danes (a common occurrence at the time). Byrhtnoth encounters the Danes camped on a sort of island connected by a narrow causeway to the mainland. By positioning his force at the mouth of the causeway onto proper land, he can force the Danes to fight only a few at a time against a much greater number and score an easy victory.

But Byrhtnoth will have none of that. There is no glory, no honor, in a slaughter. So, despite the risk–or rather, because of the risk–Byrthnoth pulls his troops back, giving the Vikings space to cross the causeway and deploy a full shieldwall formation in a pitched battle–one the Anglo-Saxons lose badly. Byrthnoth was killed.

Tolkien viewed the poem, which he believed to be written by a Christian scholar, to be a commentary and criticism of Byrhtnoth’s pride rather than a tale about the Anglo-Saxon’s courage. He penned a work of historical fiction of his own in response, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorthhelm’s Son.” Scholar Mary R. Bowman interprets this as Tolkien’s attempt to refine the “impure alloy” of the “northern heroic spirit” by refocusing the courage (read: “reckless pursuit of glory”) reflected in that ideology into a bravery expressed for the good of others (like Gandalf’s tale).

And then there’s the granddaddy of Anglo-Saxon literature: Beowulf. If you’re not familiar, you should read it as soon as possible. At least get the Cliff’s Notes or look up the summary on Wikipedia.

If you didn’t know, Tolkien (as scholar) wrote what is arguably still the most influential piece of criticism about Beowulf, his lecture and essay entitled, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In that text, Tolkien argues (among other things), that the monsters are indispensable from the story and that they should not be disregarded to try to read the text as one of mythologically-enhanced history. It should be read as literature. He goes on to argue that the author was likely a Christian familiar with the older story who had penned the text to Christianize it. In that way, we see a morality story develop between the “northern heroic spirit” of the young Beowulf, who ventures to save Hrothgar’s people to build up his own glory, and the old King Beowulf, who lays down his life to protect his subjects when a thief rouses the anger of a sleeping dragon by stealing a cup from his hoard (anyone see a resemblance there?).

For Tolkien, that “northern heroic spirit” (at its best) is about defiance to the forces of chaos, even in the face of inevitable defeat. There are numerous places in The Lord of the Rings where we see a similar function–the Christianization of the virtue of the “northern heroic spirit.” I’ll point out only a few.

The most obvious to come to mind is Boromir. His speech before attempting to take the Ring from Frodo drips with the “northern heroic spirit” as he proposes overthrowing Sauron by force. While Tolkien’s work accepts that sometimes violence is necessary, its just use is always a stalling or defensive tactic to make space for sacrifice to occur, and Tolkien is clear that the threat of Sauron and the Ring can never be defeated by the exercise of power and violence. Even were Sauron defeated in such a way, he would only be replaced as a Dark Lord by the usurper.

And, of course, Boromir’s imagining of the overthrow of Sauron puts himself at the head of the army, where he may win glory and renown for himself. Contrast him with Faramir, who has a much more reasoned (and humble) approach to the resistance of Sauron.

After the “northern heroic spirit” momentarily possesses Boromir and drives him to his immorality, he recovers, immediately repents, and redeems himself from his infractions in the most poetic way possible–through the redeemed “northern heroic spirit” itself. He fights and dies to protect the Hobbits as they are attacked; we are told he slays at least twenty orcs in the fight. He wins the renown and glory he so desired, but only by laying down his life for others.

The Battle of Helm’s Deep provides a set of related examples. The whole action by the remnants of the Fellowship at Helm’s Deep (the Hornburg, really), courses with defiance in the face of overwhelming odds as the Uruk-Hai (and, if memory serves, their Dunlending companions) prepare to destroy all resistance. But we also have three very specific instances as well.

First, the competition between Gimli and Legolas as they taunt one another with their killcount. They spur one another to greater acts of heroism in the face of the enemy (heroism because they are fighting to protect the innocent). It is especially interesting to me that when Legolas inquires after Gimli when they are separated, he says it’s so that he can tell the dwarf he’s no up to thirty kills. His very affection for the dwarf is masked under the expression of the northern heroic spirit. We might digress here onto the topic of toxic masculinity in the northern heroic spirit, but I’ll save that ball for someone else to unravel.

Second, Aragorn’s defiance of the Uruk-hai from the walls of the Hornburg as he goes to see the dawn of the third day. That exchange is well worth the short read. Perhaps as code for modern society’s version of the “northern heroic spirit,” “the balls on that one, let me tell ya’.”

Third, Theoden’s speech to inspire the men to ride out against their attackers rather than to wait and hide, even though sallying forth means almost certain death. He says that he will die fighting, not of old age. The Norse/Germanic spirit is strong in those words.

That final act of defiance, riding out on horse from the Hornburg, brings us to a third important point.


In his “Letter 89”, Tolkien says, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.”

He further elaborates on “eucatastrophe” in On Fairy Stories:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

The idea of eucatastrophe in Tolkien is a fascinating subject, one that Wood’s book spends time on and that is elsewhere much discussed. It is, in some sense, deus ex machina in both micro- and macrocosm.

But what truly fascinates me is the interplay between the northern heroic spirit and eucatastrophe.

The eucatastrophe that concludes the Battle of Helm’s Deep is Gandalf’s arrival with the Ents of Fangorn Forest. Given Gandalf’s nature as one of the Istari, his recent resurrection and ascension, this, I think, equates directly to medieval stories of a military force’s unlikely salvation coming when a host of angels descends upon the battlefield against their enemies. It is this divine intervention that saves the day for the Rohirrim and for Aragorn.

But pull the camera or the Eye of Sauron back just a little bit to the bigger picture. Yes, the final salvation comes from the divine and is completely out of the hands of the mortals (and Elves) fighting in the battle. But without their grim determination and defiance, their northern heroic spirits, would there have been space for the eucatastrophe at all?

And this, I think, is an existential masterstroke in Tolkien’s Christianization of the “northern heroic spirit.” The willingness to resist, to fight despite the odds, for the good of others creates the setting for divine intervention. Though God (in this existence or in God’s guise as Eru Iluvatar in Middle-Earth) does not need to rely on created beings to intervene and save the day, God finds usefulness and purpose in drawing mortal beings into participation in the grand narrative of the resistance to and defiance of Evil. To borrow Tolkien’s term, we have an example of “subcreation.”

We then have a combination of free will and divine determination in the argument, the same existential outlook I’ve argued for in my own theological writing.

Perhaps this is the best answer to that perennial question: Why don’t the Great Eagles just carry someone to Mt. Doom to drop the Ring in? Because, as much as Tolkien resists the idea, the story is allegorical, and God doesn’t seem to work that way. God has created in such a way that we must be tried and tested, that we must learn the value of sacrifice firsthand. This is our experience in the “real world,” and it’s similar to the experience of the Fellowship–enough so that Frodo and Gandalf briefly talk theodicy at the very beginning of the trilogy!



Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?

In Matthew 5:28, in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'”

That’s a tough statement, especially given the following advice that if a body part is causing us to sin we ought to cut it off.

But let’s take a step back and think about this on a level deeper than the surface–and the shock that goes along with it. I’m a firm believer that many times when Jesus says something that seems very condemning, what he’s doing is simply laying out for us how the world works and what the natural consequences of a thing are. For instance, when Jesus tells us that, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” in Matthew 19:24, he’s not saying “God condemns rich people for being rich and no one should be.” Rather, I think, he’s saying, “The money and power that go along with wealth–and the accompanying desire to hold onto that money and power–make it very difficult to focus on what is good and true and righteous, because the love of power is seductive and addictive. Be wary that such things do not make you see the world in the wrong way, but keep focused on the way that I have told you to see the world.”

Likewise, in Matthew 5:28, while Jesus does say something that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, reminds us all of our sins, I think that his purpose is less about shaming us and more about telling us about the very nature of sin.

And that’s why this post is titled, “Is sin phenomonal or existential?” If you’ve read many of my other posts, you already know where I fall on this issue, but I’d like to develop the idea a bit more specifically.

When I ask if sin is phenomenal, what I mean to ask is whether sin is a matter of discrete and observable actions, specific behaviors violative of what is righteous. When I ask if sin is existential, I’m asking if, rather than being a matter of specific and easily-identifiable behaviors, sin is a condition or state of being.

The real answer, of course, is that it’s both of these things at once. What the question(s) really seek to answer is whether it is particular actions that lead to a particular state of sin or whether particular actions are the result of a state of being. Again, the best argument is likely that there’s a dialectic between these two things–bad acts make it easier to choose bad acts in the future, deepening a state of sinfulness, but without some existentially sinful condition, there would never be any sinful action, so the influence of one on the other must be mutually reinforcing. So, what should we focus on as primary when dealing with and discussing sin–actions or a state of being.

In Matthew 5:28, Jesus appears to be arguing against the legalism of the Old Testament law (here making specific allusion to the Ten Commandments) and instead showing us that sinfulness is a matter of mindset, perspective (compared to the objective, I mean to intimate no relativistic thought here), paradigm.

There are two quotations I prefer (and have used on the blog before) to encapsulate this idea, which is central and fundamental to existential thought. Having been a professional student and scholar of the Renaissance and early modern periods, both quotations are derived from that most elevated and rarified literary era.

First, some John Milton, from Book I of Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Second, Shakespeare: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

Following existential thought in general, and Paul Tillich (my favorite theologian) in particular, we argue that humans, as a matter of course and necessity, make meaning in the world. We do this by relating things to one another in their existential aspects and phenomena, creating those relationships through storytelling. The “secular” existentialists see this as the fundamental cause of “existential angst”–we fail to detect any inherent and objective meaning in the things which we observe and with which we interact. But the Christian existentialist takes this farther, first positing that there is ultimate and objective meaning that comes from God, though we may detect such only through divine revelation; and, second, marvelling at the great opportunity, pleasure, power and responsibility we have been given in co-creating with God by establishing meaning through our own narratives, big and small. This process, as a fundamental aspect of man’s existence, is clear from the beginning of Creation–is not Adam creating meaning and relationships by naming the creatures of the Earth?

Upon recognition of this divinely-granted human power, we must immediately recognize the source of sin–the creation of meanings and relationships that are not in line with God’s plan and intentions. Put bluntly, seeing and thinking about the world in the wrong way.

And this is what Jesus warns about in Matthew 5:28–it’s not sin only when you take action to commit adultery; if you have created a mental concept of existence that sees women merely as objects of your lust, that permits infidelity and betrayal for the most fleeting of passions, you’re doing it wrong and you’re already in a state of sinfulness. It’s not enough to refrain from the comission of the action; you must change the way you think about and see the world and how all the things in it relate to one another.

When we compare this concept to other moral teachings of Jesus, we find great support for it. Jesus usually seems to be less concerned about specific actions and more concerned with the ideologies, social structures, theologies and existential states that lead to those actions: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” When we think about sin existentially, sin becomes about relationships, results and intents, not arbitrary restrictions. This comports perfectly with the Greatest Commandments.

Just as the plain language of Jesus’s words make clear, this is a higher standard of morality than avoiding the consummation of unrighteous intents; it is war on unrighteous intent itself. And it makes perfect sense; if you fall into the trap of lusting after people in your mind, that objectification likely affects more than just the questions of adultery and fidelity. In many ways, such thought is about a reduction of the humanity of a person into a personification of of desire and temptation, an indulgence of the self by the self that only needs the other person as a tool of that self-indulgence. Once we’ve stripped such a person of their humanity, however small a slice we may cut away at a time, we will treat them differently, and not in a better way, though the injury to the person may be so subtle as to go generally unnoticed without deep introspection or close observation.

But to focus on just how fallen the idea that sin is existential and caused by our own ordering of our idea of Creation makes us is to miss the point. The strong implication, as Milton shows us, is that just as unrighteous narrative and mental/idealist/idealogical relationships make us sinful, righteous ones bring us closer to God. Every time we shift our conception of the world closer to God’s intention for those relationships as demonstrated in Jesus, we are both personally participating in the Kingdom of God and, as we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, working to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth.

In simpler terms, Jesus is implicating here that we create our own reality. Again, not in some relativistic way, because God’s intention for Creation establishes objective truth, but in the way we personally interact with the world and believe it to be. We have been given an astounding power of sub-creation inherent to our free will, but we are also called to use that power to seek righteousness, to become, as Jesus later calls us to become in the Sermon on the Mount: Perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect.

The scope of the Sermon on the Mount is not a collection of warnings and prohibitions; it is a call to participate in the infinite joy of existence as a child of God by seeking to create the kinds of narratives and mental conceptions that God would have us create.

Easter After Israel

It’s now been about two weeks since I arrived home from Israel; as you might note, I haven’t written much since then. But a few days after Easter seems a fitting time to share some of my reflections over the past few weeks. The experience of Easter Sunday has spurred me to think deeply about how my experience of the places where the Easter story unfolded has changed my perception of the narrative.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I tend to relate to my faith through intellect and intuition far more than through emotion. To a great extent, this is simply a matter of the way I’m wired, and while it makes me especially good at some aspects of theology, it doesn’t always prove terribly helpful on my faith journey. Since Maundy Thursday, in revisiting Christ’s death and resurrection through the Gospels, a few thoughts have dawned on me about my own failings in understanding the crux of our faith. Perhaps some of you, dear readers, might be helped by my reflections on weaknesses of my own that my pilgrimage is–I hope–working to remedy.

I have discovered within myself two places where–though I did not know it until recently–my understanding of the Passion and Resurrection were woefully insignificant.

The first of these, given my psyche, is perfectly understandable (I tell myself). I have allowed my understanding of Christ’s redemptive work to be too abstract and global without also realizing how palpable and intimate it is. Seeing the places where the events unfolded, being exposed to the nuances of the location and culture–to the extent that they remain available after 2000 years, has plunged me into the thick of the narrative to consider with great detail what the experiences might have meant to those who experienced them. Given my existential approach to theology, it’s actually rather embarrassing that I’ve for so long neglected the import and emotional impact of being personally involved in the story in favor of looking to the transcendental and eternal truth of the Gospel as if it were merely on of Joseph Campbell’s “myths to live by.”

Let me be clear: this is a story with mythopoeic–perhaps better stated as theopoeic or theopoetic–power. There is great and deep truth in the Gospels that needs nothing from historicity to be true. That said, some things, sacrifice especially, have more meaning when someone actually had to endure the suffering and loss. Otherwise the meaning is only a metaphor for the idealistic world, a fine point on our weltschmerz, that “suffering unto death” that underlies the human condition and the existential states that God’s redemptive work addresses and heals. Acts of sacrificial love are only well-intentioned ideas until they are acted upon. There are many of the Bible’s stories that have the exact same meaning regardless of whether they are histories or stories, because they speak to the nature of reality. With Jesus and the entirety of the Incarnation, the something would be lacking from the Gospel message if it the events described did not actually happen. Easter is not merely some celebration of the story; it is a celebration that God, through Jesus, actually did the things that redeem us. He is Risen, indeed.

Thus, the Gospel story should be encountered as personally as possible, because the redemptive acts of the Passion and Resurrection–under whichever theory of atonement we might choose to understand them–are deeply personal and we are living them out, each and every day, though we often fail to see this in the bright lights and constant motion of daily survival.

From a certain perspective, perhaps I should offer myself some grace, because I lacked the tools to place myself within the events before my journey. I had not seen much of Israel, even in pictures, so I had little my imagination could grasp (except for illustrations in children’s picture books, bad Biblical reenactments and fleeting glimpses from documentaries) to build an image of the action and setting.

And that is especially true in America, I think. As a recent comment I overheard about Sunday’s live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar demonstrates, the images we associate with the strength demonstrated by Jesus in the Gospels falls into the same problem that plagued the people who encountered Him directly when He dwelt on the Earth: we superimpose our social ideas of strength upon Him rather than seeing the true strength He demonstrates in His sacrifice. We want a warrior king instead of a humble servant to represent the things we should aspire to. A pastor friend of mine likes to point to the “P90X Jesus” as an iconographic example of this–the image of an Olympic athlete with .001% body fat displayed on the cross (and usually white to boot).

A better understanding of the particulars of the people who experienced the Incarnation, the culture into which Jesus came and the places where Jesus preached and died both brings the truth of the story home and reinforces the actual meaning of the story rather than allowing this to be a mutable myth that we can make to be a mirror of ourselves.

The second realization I had is that I take for granted knowing the ending of the Easter story. I know that the Resurrection follows Good Friday and never stop to consider what it must have felt like not to have known–no matter how much faith one might have had in the expectations of what would come to pass.

When the disciples watched Jesus die, watched His suffering without any power to stop or alleviate it, were forced to doubt the reality of all He had taught them. I imagine most of you have read the C.S. Lewis quotation arguing that Jesus was either God or a madman; now imagine having invested three years of your life to answer that question, believing that Jesus is God, and then watching Him die, yourself likely a criminal subject to personal persecution if you too much attention comes to you.

Kafka could not have written a story of greater absurdity, Satre one of more extreme existential strength. There is no avoiding, I think, that if you were a follower of Jesus on Good Friday, you felt your soul on that cross with him though your body remained free, felt each nail pounded slowly deeper into your very essence, felt your ability to breathe and not to panic slowly fade to oblivion, felt everything you ever knew or believed threatened, felt forsaken by the One in whom you placed all your trust.

How fortunate we are never to have suffered this dark night of the soul! Though, I suspect that most of us at one point or another in our struggle to come to faith have encountered something similar in substance though lesser in degree.

As we march toward Pentecost and the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, let us try to feel the wonder and amazement when the disciples encountered the living Christ, how their faith had been fully, finally and undeniably affirmed, how nothing in the world could touch them or hold them after seeing the ultimate truth of Creation. That is redemption. That is grace.

Pilgrimage, Day 3

For the previous entry, click here.

Today has been a long day. We started the day at the Jerusalem University College campus for a briefing on Dr. Jack Beck’s approach to geography in the Bible.

If it’s not clear that I’m a nerd, this may have been my favorite part of the day. By my understanding, Dr. Beck’s approach is essentially existential–the geography of the land formed a crucial and central part of the worldview and cosmic understanding of the Biblical authors. Understanding the geography of the Holy Land helps us to understand the way that they thought and felt about the subjects about which they wrote.

This existential–and unfortunately, mostly intellectual–understanding informed my day today more than I had anticipated.

After our morning classroom session, we proceeded through Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter to the Western Wall, the part of the late retaining wall built for the Second Temple that is closest to where the Holy of Holies once stood. Many of those traveling with our group felt the tangible presence and power of the Lord in approaching the wall. I, unfortunately, did not. I saw a pile of old stones. Historically and religiously significant, of course, but no more directly relevant to my spiritual understanding than any rock formation built from Creation. In some ways, I envy those whose experiences were more profound than my own, and I take some solace in the fact that that’s the majority of our group.

But my own experience also directly relates to some points that Dr. Beck has made as well as more expansive conversations I’ve had with fellow pilgrims. Both Judaism and Islam have significant attachment to physical location Christianity, focused ultimately on the person of Jesus Christ (and, perhaps, on orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy), does not have as strong a (institutional or faith-wide) focus on geographically significant places.

Considering the journey I’m on, with its particular focus on geography, that statement requires some unpacking. For Jews, the physical presence of the Lord within the Temple constitutes a central locus for the religion. For Islam, the Holy City of Mecca represents a physical place strongly tied to the faith it represents and embodies. For Christianity, however, the focus of embodiment is a focus on God adopting human flesh, not upon a geographic locale. And the God who dwells among us is simultaneously more universal and more ephemeral than geography–that is the way of all flesh. In some sense, that perhaps undermines the (temporal) power of Christianity. Ultimately, though, it makes the theology of Christianity far more applicable and far more enduring than those of the other “faiths of the book.”

If that is the case, then the geography of the Holy Land holds power to better help us understand the person and words of Jesus Christ without itself verging on idolatry as the physical bearer of what the Hawai’ians might call “mana.” But the land itself is not a source of salvation as it might be considered to be in Judaism and Islam. This analysis, I hope, is what influenced my lack of strong emotional response to the Western Wall. I found myself more moved by the significance of the devotion of worshippers at the site than the site itself.

After the wall, we traveled to the City of David, that hill to the south of the Temple Mount that likely represents Jerusalem after David seized it from the Jebusites (and, indeed, the city had been called Jebus before the Israelites conquered it). I found the geography here fascinating for its claustrophobic space–an entire settlement containing only 10 acres. Solomon would follow his father by building the First Temple of the Lord, expanding the are of Jerusalem to something closer to 32 acres. The archeology, which has been ongoing for over 20 years at the site, made it clear that the location matched both the Bible in description and the material culture for the period of David.

We had intended to travel through the “wet” tunnel built by King Hezekiah to bring water from the Gihon Spring in the Kidron valley to the Central Valley on the other side of Mount Zion (the ancient mount Zion on which the City of David was built, not the more modern “Mount Zion” partially contained within the Old City walls, on the outside of which the JUC campus sits) but were hindered by scheduling difficulties. We were only able to pass through the earlier Canaanite “dry” tunnel that allowed passage to the pool tower to which water from the spring flowed from behind the fortification walls. This was quite enough.

After that, we walked down Mount Zion to the Pool of Siloam (and then back up) and back to through the Old City to the hotel. My Fitbit marked over 15,000 steps before the end of the day.

After dinner, I went to find some baklava near the Jaffa Gate to debrief on our experiences. The camaraderie certainly vied for the best part of the day, though I have to say that, ultimately, it’s sharing these experiences with K that ultimately does that.

Tomorrow, very early, we leave to head to Caesarea Maritima, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee.

For the next entry, click here.

The World and the World

[What follows is a rough cut from a theology book I’ve been working on off and on with the expected title of Children of God: Finding our Place in Creation. This chapter is obviously incomplete (you’ll see that I’ve not yet added all of my citations) and will undoubtedly go through several iterations more before it ends in a state I’m satisfied with. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share this nascent version here for your thoughts and comments, which are very much appreciated.]

Throughout the Bible, Old Testament and New, humanity is closely tied with the world, with the physical space God has created. This relationship, however, is nuanced and complicated by the entry of sin into our existence. Interestingly, the very words chosen to describe the world in the Bible communicate subtle but important theological messages about the nature of our relationship with the world at large.

In the beginning, both of created existence and the Book of Genesis, the Hebrew word translated to mean “earth” or “the world” before the Fall is ץרא (erets, Strong’s 776). After Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and are expelled from the garden, the word used for the same idea becomes הםדא (adamah, Strong’s 0127), from the same Hebrew root as Adam. Once Adam and Eve have sinned, their sin immediately affects Creation, infecting it with their own fallenness.[1] Of course, we need not rely on subtle linguistic change to understand this; God says as much when He tells Adam, “‘Cursed is the ground because of you…”[2]

In spite of man’s sin, or perhaps moreso because of man’s contamination of the world with sin, humanity finds itself inextricably bound to the world. As we have been created from the dust of the world, we are fated to return to the dust of that world, eternally bound to the fallenness we have created. Or so we might read Adam’s story in isolation.

After Christ’s salvific act, that is not the whole story. While our bodies may return to dust, we are possessed of an immortal spirit that transcends the world. Christ promises us a new creation, free from the taint of sinfulness and redeemed as the kingdom of God. But the kingdom of God is both a future promise and a present reality. How, then, are we to relate to the world in which we currently find ourselves?

The New Testament has much to tell us about the relationship of the Christian with “the world.” We are told that Christ is and His followers are to be the “light of the world,” and that Christ was sent not to condemn the world but to save it.[3] Here, the world is something God desires to preserve and redeem.

God’s desire to redeem the world makes sense to us, for there is beauty in the world, pleasure in nature, joy in physical and fleshly existence. Even if we could not easily perceive this in the world around us (and there are surely situations that totally obscure such beauty and wonder), God is clear about the value of Creation as He creates it. Those things He created were good.[4]

At the same time, we are shown an image of the world as something to be turned away from and rejected. The gospels seem to agree that Christ said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self [or soul].”[5] In Christ’s teachings, a tension builds between the world and the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven).

We are told not to store up earthly treasures, but heavenly ones, for our heart shall follow after our treasures, and we cannot serve both worldly gain and heavenly glory.[6] But the Gospel according to John makes the division between God and world painfully explicit. Christ tells us both that He is not of the world and that the world hates Him because He is not of it and He declares its evil.[7] The world cannot accept the Holy Spirit because it neither sees nor knows him.[8] Christ does not give as the world gives; only He has the gift of peace to offer.[9] There is a “prince of the world” who is coming to trouble Christians but who Christ will drive out.[10] Christ warns us that the world will hate His followers as it hates Him, because Christ and His followers do not belong to the world.[11]

What does it mean to belong to the world? And what is so wrong about the world that we should reject it? The answers to these questions is the same; that answer is sin. But if we are to renounce the world because it is sinful, what are we to do with the Creation that God deemed good? We are confronted with the appearance of two separate worlds, one to be rejected, one full of the splendor of God’s creative work. The world and the world.[12]

And, as we did with Hebrew in Genesis, we find a fascinating nuance of Koine Greek. Several words in the Greek New Testament are commonly translated as the English word “world.” These are: κόσμος (kosmos, “world, earth, world system…in other contexts (especially in John), the world is a system opposed to God,” Strong’s 2889), οίκουμένη (oikoumene, “the [inhabited] world, (Roman) world,” Strong’s 3625), γή (, “earth, world Strong’s 1093), κτίσις (ktisis, “creation,” Strong’s 2937), and αιών (aion, “eternity, age, universe, or current world system,” Strong’s 165).[13] Of these words, kosmos is far and away the most commonly-used, appearing 187 times in the New Testament, translated as “world” 185 of those times. Kosmos is the only world translated to “world” in the Gospel according to John. As Strong’s itself notes, in John the word kosmos often indicates a worldly system opposed to God. One should note that, despite the availability of other Koine words for “world,” John only uses kosmos.

According to the Holman Bible Dictionary, the word kosmos also carries with it the idea of something that is constructed or built, both in the sense of God’s creation of the universe and in the sense of man psychologically, mythopoeically, and philosophically constructing the world he mentally inhabits. Post-modern as it is, I meet any “system” of thought or human reality with skepticism, for any finite system created by man shall always pale in the infinite glory of the One who gave us the raw materials from which such systems are crafted. But that post-modern remark provides the crux of this chapter and the reason for the distinction that we see between the world and the world.

The first world is that of God’s Creation: the beauty and splendor of nature; the impressive wonder of the laws of physics, biology, and chemistry; the amazing diversity of animal life; the awesome expanse of galaxies and stars outside of our Milky Way. The Fall of Adam and Eve did not touch the essential nature of these things, any fallenness that taints these things is the result only of human influence upon and use of them. Here we have preserved for us the goodness that God declared for the created and natural world.

The second world is one of human creation, perhaps aided by demonic influence, perhaps not. Regardless, it is the system of manufactured “laws of nature” we pretend to have no dominance over. These laws are not natural, but social and ideological. The idea that success means wealth and power. That the products produced by a person say more about that person than what is within him. That wisdom is the ability to take advantage of others while avoiding being taken advantage of. That strength is the ability to force others to your will. That peace is merely a lack of conflict. That love is merely the use of manners. That hope is merely gallows humor. That faith is merely the repetition of dead words.

This world system, the second world, is the sum total of human error and sin. It is of necessity opposed to the Kingdom of God because it distorts Creation, relating Creation to itself in a way that perverts God’s intended purposes and essential meanings. When the word “world” is used in this way, it should not be confused with the concrete, physical world in which we reside, though the abstract “world” as the sinful system of ideas, the collective paradigm of humanity sometimes intersects with it.

This idea in many ways parallels certain schools of thought within metaphysical philosophy.

Study of these various philosophies is a worthwhile—though sometimes laborious and tedious—pursuit. I will try to remove semantic arguments from this discussion so that they cloud the issues as little as possible. While I may make some reference to philosophical ideas for sake of brevity, I will try to define the main ideas and thoughts independently of philosophical lingo for the sake of accessibility.

To a great extent, it might be wise to avoid the mental constructs of philosophy altogether and to start from a clean slate, but the foundational ideas we must address are well explored in extant philosophy and we have neither time nor space to reinvent the wheel. All the subsequent thoughts in this book stem from a certain concept of reality, and without explicitly illustrating that paradigm, much that follows would be confused and garbled.

Metaphysics and theology overlap at a minimum, and often occupy the same space, as they are both concerned with the truth that underlies perceived reality. For our purposes, we will oversimplify our metaphysics to three broad categories. The first of these says that only the material world as it can be perceived exists, that thought, cognition, and consciousness are only by-products of material processes or structures. This category would, obviously, include materialism, and also probably positivism. On the other end of the spectrum we have the idea that only the spirit exists, and that all perceived objects are either illusory or simply manifestations or perceptions of spirit. Into this category falls idealism, particularly the mystic idealism of George Berkeley, but also the ideas of Plato, Proclus, Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, Leibniz, Jakob Boehme, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Rudolf Steiner. Given the presence of men like George Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, and Meister Eckhart in that list, we can see that philosophical idealism has had a profound influence on Christianity, or at least certain forms of it. Somewhere between the two extremes lies that both mind or spirit and the material exist in some dualistic combination; this is often called “realism.”

That middle ground between idealism and materialism will be our starting place, though we will lean more heavily toward idealism than we do toward materialism. With the existence of God, materialism cannot stand; one simply cannot be both a materialist and a Christian. Matthew 6 stresses twice that God is “unseen.”[14] In 2 Corinthians, Paul reminds us that what we see is temporary, but what we cannot see is eternal.[15] Christ’s condescension to man has as part of its purpose to reveal God to man, for He is typically unseen. If we are to have faith in a God we cannot perceive with our five senses, we must have faith also that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”[16]

While reference to established philosophical paradigms serves as a shortcut to discuss certain ideas in the context of two overlapping and competing worlds or modes of existence, we must be careful not to put our faith (even moreso our God) into a box. The desire to simplify and categorize is endemic to human nature, but let’s resist that urge for a more complex and beautiful understanding.

When we look to scripture, we find a view of the world that does not easily fit into a materialist, or idealist, or realist view. In fact, aside from the inadequacy of materialism to explain the universe as understood by the Christian, a Biblical understanding of reality could align with an idealist view (as a number of prominent Christian thinkers and philosophers have adopted) or with a realist view.

If we focus solely on Paul’s words that what is true is unseen, and what is seen is false, this might lead us to a purely idealist view—the everyday, mundane experience of life, especially the material particulars of life, are but illusions concealing the greater truth of existence as expressed to us (and perhaps only accessible by us, at least at first) through God’s revelation. This idea would find ready corollaries in Buddhism or Hinduism.

But Paul also tells us that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.”[17] The word for “world” used by Paul here is kosmos. If we are to follow the difference between the world (as good creation) and the world (as kosmos, man’s constructed paradigm of reality), this statement adds great depth to our inquiry. First, to continue the current line of thought, this statement tells us that there are good things in the physical world that God wants to redeem; this should cause us to approach a purely idealist paradigm with some caution, perhaps preferring a more complex and nuanced realist philosophy as part of our theology. This statement requires us to view the word kosmos as meaning the physical, created world rather than constructed experience of reality. There is no doubt that this meaning is also intended by the use of the word in certain passages of scripture, or perhaps that the double meaning purposefully exists like nesting dolls constructed around one another.

Second, when we read the word kosmos in Paul’s statement to mean man’s self-invented paradigm of existence, we are told that God’s desire is to reconcile our understanding of reality with His. This idea will prove to be integral to the chapters that follow. For now, we return briefly to the ideas of idealism and realism.

Ultimately, we are faced with two seeming opposites to resolve. First, the existence of a temporal, material world. Second, the existence of a transcendent world of spirit. Christianity has a unique approach to many questions of opposites. As G.K. Chesteron writes:

Here, again in short, Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.[18]

Perhaps the answer is not in the opposites themselves, but in their combination. There is a third way. If the material and the spiritual are situated on top of one another, so interwoven that they are simultaneously individual and yet a unity, we are presented with a “solution” that comports with the thematic underpinnings of the entire discussion of this book, and with Christianity as a whole. This “solution”, I think defies easy classification as idealist or realist. Quite possibly it dexterously sidesteps that conversation altogether.

This chapter began with a discussion of the two competing worlds within the New Testament, Creation and the Kosmos. For there to exist this opposition, the one must be independent from the other. That is to say, God’s intentions and original Creation must be separate from Himself for it to be susceptible to corruption and sin. This in itself only proves that man is separate from God, as we shall soon discuss, but if man is separate from God, why should the rest of Creation not be?

In his letters, Paul says:

For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.[19]

The word used by Paul here is σάρζ (sarx, Strong’s 4561).[20] This word literally means “the soft tissue of a creature,” though Paul uses it to contrast that which is sinful with that which is holy, the Spirit.[21] Born in Tarsus, a Greek city known for its intellectual prowess, Paul’s childhood included instruction in Greek philosophy.[22] Scholars have clearly established Paul’s familiarity with Stoic philosophy.[23] During Paul’s time, the tradition of Platonism also included significant aspects of Stoic thought, making it difficult to determine exactly how familiar Paul would have been with the idealism of Middle Platonism.[24] However, given the culture of learning into which Paul was born and the similarity between Paul’s established opposition between flesh and spirit and Platonic opposition between matter and soul, the connection seems an easy one.[25]

Still, we should not be too ready to see in Paul’s writings more than a metaphorical (rather than metaphysical) divide between sarx and the spirit, although this statement, too, must be carefully defined. As N.T. Wright argues in his book, Paul: In Fresh Perspective, we would do well to—when we discuss the connections between Greek philosophy and Paul’s theology—remember also the ways in which Paul’s theology is utterly incompatible with systems of Greek thought, whether the pantheism of Stoicism or the “ontological gap between the divine and the world” that explains the existence of evil in Epicurean thought.[26]

We will conclude here that, without much greater examination (which I will leave to others). We cannot say that Paul held a readily dualistic view of the world of flesh and the world of spirit. Instead, these two worlds, which are arguably the same as the world of creation and the kosmos world, are intimately connected, just as God is intimately interested in and connected to mankind. As we continue this line of exploration, let us keep in mind that, while to some extent useful for framing a discussion or approach to theological investigation, it is rarely helpful to place theology in a philosophical box, to say that an orthodox understanding of our faith fits within this school of thought or that. Existence is too big, too minutely ordered, and too complex for such an easy distinction.

From sources other than Paul, the early church fathers—Clement of Alexandria, St. Augustine, and Origen—incorporated Platonic thought into Christian theology.[27] That any of these men, Paul included, held (or possibly held) Platonic ideas does not of itself make those ideas true. But Christ Himself makes a distinction that closely aligns with the arguments of both Paul and Platonism. Upon Christ’s appearance to Thomas after the Resurrection, Christ tells Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”[28] Christ’s repeated distinction between seen and unseen—by proxy worldly and spiritual—strongly suggests a realist approach that gives dominance to the ideal, to the matters of the mind and spirit while not going so far as to say that the material does not exist.

My own personal experience drives this home. For almost half of my life, I’ve had—I hesitate to say “suffered” because I’m doing just fine, thank you very much (but I have suffered at times)—from clinical depression. For me, this is simply an imbalance of the neurotransmitters in my brain, serotonin and probably also norepinephrine. When properly addressed with medication, I feel and think as myself, as the closest thing I know to my “essential” self. When those chemicals run rampant, however, my thoughts are not my own, and the chemicals in my brain cause me to think thoughts that, consciously, I know are not the thoughts I truly have about a given thing and to feel feelings that I consciously know not to be my true feelings. My mind or spirit and my body are out of joint and in conflict with one another, and though I know my identity is being oppressed and suppressed by malfunctioning neurotransmitters, that does not make it easy to cognitively recover myself. Though many scientists would disagree with my assessment, and I cannot concretely communicate the truth of it to anyone outside of myself, my experiences with depression have made it clear to me that my mind and my body are not the same. At the same time, though, it shows me that body and mind influence one another in profound and direct ways; while this dialectic influence does not rise to the level of determinism, it does show us that there is both a divide and a unity between the material and the spiritual, a divide and a unity that resonates in our relationship with God (individually or corporately), or participation in the Body of Christ, and the microcosmic example of marriage.

Again, we need not label or categorize this position within extant schools of philosophical thought; we will find it sufficient to say that we find support in the Bible, the world around us, the tradition of the church in the early church fathers, and the reason of philosophy for the premise that there are both a spiritual/unseen aspect and a material/perceptible aspect within existence and that they influence one another, though the spirit is ultimately the stronger. Along with this, we assert that the created has an existence apart from God, both in its material and spiritual aspects.

And this brings us to another philosophical school of thought that finds great purchase within this book: existentialism.

Popularly, we think of existentialism as a secular, humanist school of thought—the names Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus and Friedrich Nietzsche come to mind. And we’ll start with secularist existentialism, but that’s only the first half of the puzzle, because existentialism originated in Christian thought.

An existentialist would tell us that “existence precedes essence,” that is, that our philosophical discussion must begin from the premise that things are, not what things are. Our focus starts with the individual, not with what attributes make the individual who he is, but the simple fact that he is an individual in his existence. There’s a lot to be said for the artistic and philosophic value of existentialist thought, but existentialism takes us down a dark path if followed blindly into the forest of consequential ideas. Tread it with me a while and we’ll find that, because the existentialist concern begins with ourselves and our experience rather than the supposition of there being an essential, necessary nature to every thing, we come to believe that there is no meaning. From this argument, existentialists then become psychologists, focusing their philosophy on the psychic trauma we popularly call existential angst, the horror of our realization of a lack of meaning in the universe.

Again we are reminded of Chesterton’s “sacred paradox,” the combination of furious opposites that remain furiously opposed and yet bound together. Secular existentialism gives us half of the paradox if taken to its logical conclusion. For that conclusion, we turn not to the philosophers we discussed above but to a storyteller, and one of my favorites. If you’ve been plugged into to popular culture even in the most tenuous of senses, you’ve heard of Joss Whedon, he created the TV Series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse; most of his recent work has been in the comic book field, particularly with the recent Avengers movies. Whedon has referred to himself as “a very hard-lined, angry atheist,” and close examination of some of his works reveals a definite secular humanist existentialist tone, though arguably an agnostic tone over an atheistic one. For an example of this in The Avengers, search the internet for an article by Nathaniel Darnell of the Atlanta Art Cinema Examiner entitled, “Fun Movie but is Joss Whedon’s ‘The Avengers’ Theistic or Agnostic?”[29]

Why does our conversation take a sudden left turn into the territory of such an unlikely candidate? Because Joss Whedon is a smart man, and though secular existentialism gives us only half of the paradox, Whedon gives it its clearest expression. He is oft quoted as having said, “If nothing we do matters, the only thing that matters is what we do.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Whedon’s words are simply the existentialist’s phrasing of what we’ve been discussing in meaning and ambiguity—humans make meaning; the meaning that they make is powerful. If you believe that nothing has any inherent meaning, then of necessity the meaning we assign to it bears that thing’s power. Going back to Adam’s naming of the animals, we are told in Scripture both that there is an absolute essence to objects that is not preceded by existence but also that we are called to make meaning in the world. The meaning we make may be relational rather than essential, but it nevertheless carries great power. How we define the world determines how we interact with it.

To be clear, the half of the sacred paradox that existentialists get right is that humans make meaning and that the meaning we make carries power. The other half, though, is that God also makes meaning, absolute essential meaning. In Christian thought, these two “furious opposites” co-exist. Ambiguity is the space between, where God’s withdrawal from us of absolute knowledge of absolute meaning has given us the power to create our own meaning.

Christian existentialist thought provides us with the mechanism by which God creates ambiguity. As I said before, existentialism started with Christian thought—most would point to Søren Kierkegaard as the first (modern) existentialist thinker. He proposed that God, the hope and love that He provides, is the only remedy from the existential angst of a recognition of meaninglessness. I won’t address Kierkegaard’s arguments except to say that it seems clear to me that God has made a meaningful world that only sometimes seems meaningless, but that that seeming meaninglessness serves a high purpose in God’s plan for Creation.

From Kierkegaard, Christian existentialist thought passes down to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, to the German theologian Paul Tillich, and a number of other influential theologians we will not discuss here. Paul Tillich, though, is the one who provides us with a formulation of the mechanism God uses to create ambiguity. It is, of course, existential in nature. Tillich says, “…life is ambiguous because it unites essential and existential elements.”[30]

This is exactly what we’ve been discussing—that ambiguity results from the interplay between God’s absolute (essential) meaning and man’s relational (existential) meaning. For Tillich, this interplay can also be viewed as the tension between the infinite possibility of God and the finite reality of man. He says, “So my life oscillates between the possible and the real and requires the surrender of the one for the other—the sacrificial character of all life.”[31]

Tillich means that, upon choosing meaning, man necessarily rejects other possibilities of meaning, “sacrificing” them back to God. Here, we have another sacred paradox of Christianity because, in man, the finite of “reality” and the infinite of God’s possibility are united and synthesized.

In our everyday lives, we assign meaning to everything around us. Meaning is the “end, purpose, or significance of a thing.” If meaning itself is ambiguous—and that’s one of the things that makes this discussion so difficult—think of adjectives. When we decide that something is good or bad, right or wrong, better or worse, simple or complex, beneficial or detrimental, we’re giving some meaning to the thing, whether an object, a person, a place, or an idea. I have to make clear here that there is a distinction to be made between meaning and truth. Meaning is about the significance an object, idea or person has, which can only be understood relative to other objects, ideas, and people. Truth is about what an object, idea, or person is. They are not the same, though truth influences meaning. I’m not sure if we can say the same for the reverse. To borrow philosophical terms, we will call Truth, that absolute meaning of a created thing bestowed by God, essential meaning (that is, related to the essence of a thing) and the meaning created by man existential meaning (the meaning given to a thing by the way we position it in relation to all other things).

To understand how things accrue meaning, let us look to Hamlet. In Act II, Scene 2, lines 250-251, Hamlet says, “…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” The very nature of thought arranges ideas relative to one another; in the same way, by orienting things relative to one another, we give them meaning, even if we can only understand this meaning by referring to other objects.

How do we know that God intends for us to interject meaning into the world? We have only to look to Genesis 2:19:

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

To appreciate this, we need to think of what God has just done. He’s spoken the entirety of Creation, including Adam and Eve, into being, and now He shares His power with Adam. He willingly hands over the power to name the animals to His created man, accepting the meaning that Adam instills in the animals. To be clear, God and Adam both create meaning in the animals. The core, fundamental meaning God creates by giving the animals their various phenomena and essential aspects. Relational meaning is given to the animals by Adam—their names separate them from other animals but also provide a vehicle for thinking about each animal relative to the rest of Creation.

Let us not be led astray into the thought that this process is relativism of truth. What a thing is and what a thing means are different. The essential nature of a thing, what it is, is absolute and comes from God. What a thing means is relational, and is supplied by the thought of man. As finite and imperfect creatures, we are often unable to ascertain the truth of a thing’s essence. Along with this inability to accurately determine the absolute, our varied experience and identity causes us to relate objects and ideas to one another in almost infinite ways, creating a divergence of meanings.

This space is the divergence between essential meaning and existential meaning explored previously. Often, we call this divergence “ambiguity.” The literal definition of “ambiguity” is “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention.”[32] As often as we are confronted with meaning, we are confronted with ambiguity. On a high level, this is clear when you try to answer questions like: What is freedom? Is it better to be happy or to know the truth? Is intelligence the same as wisdom?

Without ambiguity, without variance in meaning, the will is not free, because, as we’ll discuss, the primary mechanism by which the will is asserted is in the creation of meaning. To put this in Christian terms, ambiguity is a result of the difference of the finite and the infinite—without God’s withdrawal of His infinite self from us (perhaps better put as the separation of God’s infinite self from us, for we know that God is with us and the withdrawal only partial), we would dominated by the absolutism of the infinite, unable to be individual.

On the more practical level, we experience ambiguity every day when we attempt to understand what a co-worker meant by what she said, to understand the meaning of the loss of a loved one (though we should more likely be set upon understanding the meaning of the life lived), or the hidden motivations of our own actions. Because ambiguity causes tension and difficulty for us, we tend to think of it as a negative thing. If we (perhaps ironically) assign this sort of meaning to ambiguity, are we missing the point? I think so.

Nevertheless, our personal experiences with the difficulty of grappling with ambiguity reveals to us the finitude of ourselves, our limited understanding of self, God, Creation, and others. “For now, we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am known.”[33]

The Bible makes clear to us that ambiguity has a purpose. Though there are many examples that I could point to to prove this point, I’ll resign myself to two. First, look to Genesis 22. This is the telling of Abraham being told to sacrifice his son Isaac. As you read that scripture, I want you to ask yourself, “How old is Isaac?” Now, let’s look at Luke 18:18, the parable of the rich young ruler:

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered.

“No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”

“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Having read this passage, what does the rich young ruler do at the end? We assume that he becomes sad because he’s unwilling to part with his wealth, but could it be that he is sad to part with his material wealth because he’s going to follow what Jesus asked of him? We don’t get a definite answer here.

Returning to Isaac, how old is he? If you’re truthful with yourself, your answer is, “I don’t know.” Now, there are plenty of traditions about Isaac’s age, like the medieval one that Isaac was thirty-three at the time of his almost-sacrifice (because medieval theologians also supposed Christ to have been thirty-three when he submitted to the crucifixion), but we don’t have a definite answer.[34]

But ambiguity in the Bible goes much deeper than that, it’s written into the very literary style of the scripture.

Back in the 1930’s before the start of World War II, a Jewish German philologist and scholar of comparative literature named Erich Auerbach had been exiled from his professorial position at the University of Marburg. He fled to Istanbul, where he worked—mostly from memory—on his best-known treatise of comparative literature, what would become the book called Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in the Western World.[35] In that work, Auerbach argues that there are two main literary styles that influenced the early Western world, the Biblical style and the Homeric style. The Homeric style, named of course for Homer, the author of the Iliad, focuses on evoking in the reader a sense of awe and wonder; it accomplishes this by lavishing us with sensory detail after sensory detail. We learn what the feast smelled and looked and tasted like, what the adornment’s of the hero’s horse felt and sounded like. Contrast this with the Biblical style, which gives us (to quote Dragnet) “just the facts, ma’am,” the narrative outline of the story without much detail to draw us away from unfolding events. Indeed, the example of Abraham and Isaac I have borrowed from Auerbach as an example of details we might consider important that nevertheless do not find their way into the Biblical text.

If we buy into Auerbach’s argument (and his book is worth the read), we must ask ourselves, “Why does the Bible, a religious text, choose its simple style, fraught with ambiguity, over the style that seeks to fill us with a sense of the awesome and wonderful?” Auerbach provides us with this answer as well—to him, the power of the Biblical style comes from its tendency to draw the reader in. As you read the Bible, you must fill in the details that it lacks; your mind’s eye pictures Isaac, perhaps as a toddler, perhaps as a teenager, perhaps as a thirty-three year-old man. The ambiguity of the narrative style causes you to engage the narrative of the text, to wrestle with it, and to participate with it. Homer wants his words to wash over you; God wants you to grapple with His. If this is true of the Biblical text, why not of the world? Ambiguity forces man to be an active participant in the world, to willfully and directly engage it rather than passively allowing it to work its will upon you. Later in this book, we’ll call this “co-creation.”

Our fear of ambiguity is a result of our sinfulness, for we could approach ambiguity with fear and trembling or with reverence and gladness at the opportunity to meaningfully participate in Creation. In American culture, we have established a meme that the Chinese character for “crisis” is a combination of the Chinese characters for “danger” and “opportunity.”[36] The fallacy of this etymology is irrelevant, for the concept itself, not its origin, is what concerns us. This aphorism concisely depicts our potential understandings of ambiguity. Because ambiguity necessarily implies uncertainty, we perceive danger in it, for we have seen many ambiguities in our world resolved in sinful and malicious ways. Simultaneously, ambiguity embodies potentiality, raw possibility not shaped into concrete meaning. Opportunity. Were the fullness of the Kingdom present on the Earth as we desire it to be, perhaps only the latter aspect of ambiguity would exist. But we occupy a fallen world, and both danger and opportunity co-exist in our connection to ambiguity.

Thus, like many gifts from God corrupted by our fallen nature, our approach to the resolution of ambiguity carries with it both a sense of wonder and a possibility of joy alongside a heavy responsibility. How we resolve ambiguity is how we create meaning. How we create meaning either brings us into a right relationship with our Triune God, with Creation, and with each other or abandons this connectedness for selfishness. The meanings we create for ourselves either pull us closer to God’s meaning, or reject it. So here we are, caught between the world and the world.

[1] Refs to Strong’s, translations, etc. Thanks to my friend DVH for pointing out to me this linguistic nuance.

[2] Genesis 3:17b.

[3] John 8:12, Matthew 5:14, John 3:17, 12:47.

[4] Genesis 1:4,10b, 12b, 18b, 21b, 25b, 31. It is worth noting that, once God has created man and woman, He deems Creation not just “good,” but “very good.”

[5] Matthew 16:26, Mark 8:36, Luke 9:25.

[6] Matthew 6:19-24.

[7] John 8:23, 7:7,

[8] John 14:17.

[9] John 14:27.

[10] John 14:30-31, 12:31, 16:8-11. This “prince of the world” is traditionally assumed to be Satan, which comports with Satan’s temptation of Christ with the offer of worldly power found within Matthew 4:1-11.

[11] John 15:18-25.

[12] I must, of course, acknowledge China Miéville’s The City and the City for the title of this chapter, and probably the hermeneutic that led to its writing. In that novel, two fictional European cities lie “grosstopically” (geographically) within one another, but nevertheless separated by belief that transcends physical reality. The analogy is too good to avoid.

[13] All information taken from the Greek Dictionary-Index in Strong, James, ed. John R. Kohlenberger and James A. Swanson, The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI 2001).

[14] Matthew 6: 6, 18. This is further stressed in John 1:18, in which Christ says, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God…”

[15] 2 Corinthians 4:18, and, of course, 2 Corinthians 5:7, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”

[16] Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5, Lines 167-68.

[17] 2 Corinthians 5:19.

[18] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 141-42. Chesterton’s discussion of united opposites in Christianity is far more eloquent than I could devise, so I defer to him for a fuller discussion of this idea as it applies to Christianity as a whole. I note only that I am in complete agreement with him here.

[19] Romans 7:5.

[20] The Strongest Strong’s.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Citation.

[23] Citation.

[24] Citation.

[25] Citation.

[26] Wright, N.T., Paul: In Fresh Perspective, p. 87. To be fair, Wright is concerned more with the problem of evil than with ontological or existential metaphysics in this part of his book, so his discussion and ours do not align perfectly. The point stands, nevertheless, that Paul’s understanding of creation does not readily fit into modern philosophical categories.

[27] Citation.

[28] John 20:29.

[29] Citation to web address.

[30] Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. III, p. 29.

[31] Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. III. P. 42.

[32] Citation to dictionary.

[33] 1 Corinthians 13:12. Some translations say, “through a glass, darkly,” the inspiration for Phillip K. Dick’s Through a Scanner, Darkly. This passage has been frequently cited as evidence of the influence of Platonic thought upon Paul’s own understanding of Christ. If this is so, Paul writes with some formulation of the difference between the essential (represented by the Good or the perfect forms) and the existential (represented by those imitations of the Forms that we perceive as reality).

[34] Citations.

[35] Full reference here.

[36] References.