Fr. John Behr says in a 2019 lecture that our distinction between the uncreated (the triune God) and the created (all else) is not the primary distinction made within reality by the apostles. The primary distinction in reality assumed by the scriptures and the apostles was between the invisible realm (which includes God as well as the gods or angelic hosts) and the visible realm (which includes all of the earthly realities we see around us now). Humans are uniquely located in both realms. However, we find our generative purpose and our eternal telos in the unseen realm. According to Behr, we now take for granted a “philosophical monotheism rather than a biblical monotheism.”
Now this [biblical] monotheism is clearly not that of later philosophical deism or even a Trinitarian deism starting with God in and of himself or God as three by himself prior to and independent of created rational beings. It is rather, I would suggest, a biblical monotheism in which God is always seen as presiding over the heavenly court in a celebration of the heavenly liturgy. God is in the congregation of gods. …[Philosophical monotheism] starts with God considered by himself as three prior to and independent of creation and then creating and overseeing affairs below rather than God standing in the midst of the congregation of gods in the eternal everlasting celebration of the heavenly liturgy reflected here on earth.
While the triune God remains uniquely uncreated, this is not based on a temporal priority but upon the fact that God gives being to the gods while they receive this life and being to display it back as a gift of God’s manifest presence in their many particular lives. Behr is saying, gently but clearly, that we need to reclaim the eternal (but not uncreated) existence of a heavenly divine council that expresses the life of the Trinity timelessly.
Behr says that this sets up the vertical axis of the eternal cross of Christ and its apocalyptic advent within history. The horizontal axis of Christ’s cross, says Behr, is the fact “that in the intersection between temporality and eternity, causality works backwards” and that “the future determines the past.” As Behr says in less abstract terms: “It’s because Christ died on the cross, destroying the last enemy, death, drawing all things to him and to his Father …that the prophets spoke about it, not the other way around.”
In each present moment, we live at this intersection between the seen and the unseen vertical line as it crosses the horizontal line of time while we participate liturgically in our own future, a future that is actively shaping us now. Behr focuses on the biblical and apocalyptic texts as well as the Christian liturgy in expanding this. However, all of the visible world around us also participates (imperfectly yet truly) in the heavenly liturgy as the heavenly liturgy is the only source of reality and being. As John Calvin put it in his commentary on Ezekiel:
God sometimes seems to mingle heaven and earth. …The spirit is here taken for secret vigor or instinct. …The incomprehensible vigor and agitation [of whatever seems to happen in the world] proceeds from God’s command, so that all creatures are animated by angelic motion: not that there is a conversion of the angel into an ox or a man, but because God exerts and diffuses his energy in a secret manner, so that no creature is content with his own peculiar vigor, but is animated by angels themselves.
By attending to and participating in the visible world of animals and all else, we are therefore invited into the heavenly liturgy that is the final end and purpose of all the visible world and that is making us into what we can become.
John Behr exponds on all of this in his lecture “Standing in the Temple: The Liturgical, and Apocalyptic, Context of Theology.” (This was delivered at the symposium “Contemplative Traditions, Theory and Practice” during December, 2019 in Sigtuna, Sweden and posted online June 26, 2020 by Sankt Ignatios College. I’ve posted transcriptions to three portions of it below at the end of these reflections.)
This new blog where I’m posting carries the tagline “blogging in the light of tradition and apocalypse” for a host of inscrutable reasons. Not least among these is the title of a forthcoming book by David Bentley Hart which is Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief. You can read the first chapter from the publisher here (as the book releases next month). The first chapter sets this book up as a response to the “1845 of the first edition of John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.” Hart claims:
To this day, in fact, only Maurice Blondel’s Histoire et Dogme of 1904 has made anything like a substantial advance in theological reflection on the issues raised in that text, and then more as a supplement than as an alternative to Newman’s argument. This is unsurprising, I suppose, inasmuch as “tradition” in this specifically theological acceptation is a very new idea, relatively considered, with no very deep roots in the tradition of the church.
…Newman’s treatise, after all, did not merely address the issue; it inaugurated the entire project of treating “tradition” as an object of theological inquiry in its own right, rather than as something merely quietly assumed—a vague designation, that is, for a dogmatic and spiritual continuity across generations that Christian thought had always presupposed in its understanding of itself but had never really properly reflected upon. As the first systematic attempt to demonstrate the intrinsic rationality of Christian doctrinal and theological history as a totality, obedient to general principles of logical consistency, the Essay was nothing less than epochal in its importance. But, for all its considerable richness and subtlety, it was at the last a self-defeating exercise; ultimately, it amounted to an inadvertently sophistical effort to transform a tautology into a syllogism.
Evidently, Hart considers the Christian tradition’s own idea of tradition to be more apocalyptic and alive. (For this profound insight, I am relying largely on the title of the book of course.) My hope is that several future blog posts here by various people will reflect on these forthcoming claims from Hart after having actually read them. For now, in preparation, I can only commend to you the lecture by Behr on the nature of apocalypse as well as, of course, John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I might speculate further and suggest looking up the concept of a living tradition that gets some popular airtime especially in the Orthodox Christian world, but I’m not sure how much alignment there might actually be when all is said and done.
In conclusion, the subtitle of Hart’s forthcoming book (An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief) reminds me a little of an article published online about a decade ago by technologist Kevin Kelly entitled “The Next One Thousand Years Of Christianity.” Among many other achievements, Kevin Kelly helped to launch Wired magazine in 1993, and served as its Executive Editor for six years. He has also authored What Technology Wants (Viking, 2010) and several other popular books. As a futurist and even a kind of Christian transhumanist, Kevin Kelly’s thought could hardly be more different than that of David Bentley Hart in some respects. At a simple and superficial level, Hart abhors the idea of artificial intelligence as a false promise (the more false, in some sense, as it becomes more fully a reality in our daily lives) while Kevin Kelly cares deeply about how we will instruct our robotic kin as this day arrives and has even drafted a catechism in preparation. Both men, however, share a deep love for ancient human cultures and religions (and the far East in particular). This comparison would be its own fascinating reflection. While I’m not prepared adjudicate between these two exuberant thinkers and writers any further now, I raise the comparison simply to point out that we are certainly in need of clear visions and that understanding the present must always include an appropriate kind of sight into our future and our past. Coming back to Fr. John Behr, I pray that we might learn to see the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
With that, as promised, here are excerpts from John Behr’s lecture on the nature of apocalypse:
Although [Origen] concludes Principia book four by reaffirming that the trinity alone is bodiless, Origen is clearly not thinking primarily in terms of an uncreated and incorporeal God overseeing created reality and the drama of worldly affairs (which is how we tend to think of it). Rather, taking his lead from Paul, he sees two narratives being played out: the one above tracing Israel according to the spirit and the one below that of Israel according to the flesh, with one being a type of the other. This distinction, he argues, is characterized by Paul elsewhere (2 Corinthians 4) as a distinction between things that are unseen and eternal and things that are seen and transient. As Paul reminds us, we have a building from God, a house not made by hands, eternal in the heavens.
So this apostolic distinction between what is unseen and eternal and what is seen and transient is more fundamental for Origen than the distinction between uncreated and created. We tend to start with that distinction (uncreated, created) and then we think about everything else. Now one might suppose that this latter distinction between uncreated and created became the fundamental distinction in the 4th century as a result of the Arian controversy, but even in the last quarter of the 4th century and in a work specifically written against Eunomius, Gregory of Nyssa does very much the same. In his work against Eunomius, [Gregory] says:
I’m going to give the exposition of our account of our own conception of the truth. …The ultimate division of all being is the split into the intellectual and perceptible. The perceptible nature is called by the apostle that which is seen. For, as all body has color and sight apprehends it, he calls this world by the rough-and-ready name of that which is seen. The common term again for the intellectual is, with the apostle, that which is not seen. By withdrawing all idea of comprehension by the senses, he leads the mind on to the immaterial and intellectual. Reason divides this which is not seen into the uncreated and created, inferentially comprehending it.
So the distinction between the created and the uncreated finds its place within the overarching apostolic distinction between the seen and the transient on the one hand and the unseen and eternal on the other hand, with rational beings clearly falling within the latter: unseen, along with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Now this monotheism is clearly not that of later philosophical deism or even a Trinitarian deism starting with God in and of himself or God as three by himself prior to and independent of created rational beings. It is rather, I would suggest, a biblical monotheism in which God is always seen as presiding over the heavenly court in a celebration of the heavenly liturgy. God is in the congregation of gods. That is a vision of God that pervades the scriptures throughout the Old Testament and even increasing in the literature of the Second Temple Judaism and apocalyptic works to the New Testament proclamation that the crucified and risen Christ has been exalted to sit at the right hand of the Majesty on high in the throne room which John beheld in his Apocalypse, in which the one who sits upon the throne and the slain lamb offered blessing and honor and glory and might unto ages of ages (Revelation 5).
Now all of that is to bring us to the point that it is this biblical monotheism that is also the vision of God experienced by Christians in their worship upon earth where the heavenly and the earthly coincide. The heavenly liturgy and the earthly liturgy coincide. It’s captured most concisely in the preface to the anaphora of Basil the Great: “…Through whom [Jesus Christ] every rational and intelligent being is empowered, worships you and ascribes to you the everlasting (or the eternal) hymn of glory because all things are your servants.”
So in this tapestry of scriptural allusions, the God and Father, Christ His Son and our great God, the Holy Spirit and all rational and intellectual beings are held together in the flow of one continuous sentence expressing movement from God, through Christ, through the Spirit, through whom all rational beings in return send forth praise to God. And there is moreover an everlasting (or more strictly speaking, a timeless, eternal) hymn that servants of God offer to their Lord—the servants of God who are creatures who’ve come into being in time as distinct from the uncreated God. But that’s a secondary distinction, between the unseen and the seen.
Just as there is only one scripture whose narrative is read as both veiled, according to the letter and according to the spirit—seen with a stereoptic vision through an apocalyptic reading of scripture, it’s a single narrative but with enough stumbling blocks in it to persuade us always to look deeper there beneath the veil—so also the heavenly worship and earthly worship, although enacted in heaven and upon earth, are not ultimately separate but rather as John Ashton put it they are matching pairs in which one-half, the lower, is a mirror image of the higher. It is only when theological reflection lost its moorings within liturgical worship that the distinction between uncreated and creative became primary rather than the apostolic distinction between unseen and eternal on the one hand and seen and transient on the other hand. So the creative and creative distinction became primary resulting in a philosophical monotheism rather than a biblical monotheism. It starts with God considered by himself as three prior to and independent of creation and then creating and overseeing affairs below rather than God standing in the midst of the congregation of gods in the eternal everlasting celebration of the heavenly liturgy reflected here on earth.
In Louise Martin’s words that we looked at earlier, he said events on the heavenly stage not only correspond to events on the earthly stage, but they slightly perceive them in time, leading them into existence so to speak. In his examination of Origen’s understanding of time, Panayiotis Tzamalikos has argued that in the intersection between temporality and eternity, causality works backwards—from the end, eschatologically, teleologically. If Origen, as apocalyptic thinking in general, begins by contemplating the end… (It’s always said that Origen starts with the beginning and says that the end must be like the beginning. No. He says let us look to the end and from the end we might get a sense of the beginning.) …He looks to the end because the end is given. God will be all in all. That’s given. It is moreover because there is an end that there is a beginning, and it’s this finiteness of the world that gives coherence meaning and purpose to what happens in time.
For instance, when the Apostle Paul says (Romans 5:14) that Adam is a type of the one to come, that necessarily means that the archetype, the one by whom the type or the imprint is stamped, the archetype must precede the one who’s made in His image. Adam was a type of the one to come, as yet to come, but if he’s a type the archetype must proceed the existence of the type. As Nicholas Kabasilas it, “The old Adam might be considered the archetype to those who see him first. We know Adam first and then we come to Christ. But for him who has everything before his eyes, the older is an imitation of the second.” So as Tzamalikos concludes, “Odd as it may appear that prospective fulfillment of certain prophecy is the cause whereas the utterance of the prophecy is a result, although temporarily it proceeds the event itself.”
It’s the future that determines the past. Put it in other less abstract words. It’s because Christ died on the cross, destroying the last enemy, death, drawing all things to him and to his Father, it’s because Christ died on the cross that the prophets spoke about it, not the other way around. It’s not because they spoke about it that he then died. In fact, when they spoke about it, they did so as a past event. As Irenaeus puts it, “When Isaiah says I’ve seen with my eyes a king and the Lord of Hosts, …they see the Son of God as a human being conversing with human beings while prophesying what was to happen, saying that he who as yet was not come yet was present, proclaiming also the impassible of subject to suffering and declaring that he who was then in the heaven had [past tense] descended into the dust of the earth.” Or as Anselm puts it, almost a millennium later, “When God does anything, once it is done, it is impossible for it not to have been done, and it’s always true that it has been done.” You can only speak about it as past tense, even if it’s yet to happen. The future determines the past.
This apocalyptic vision created by the intersection of eternity and time in the upper and the lower register of the drama with the upper level open to us in the lower level in and through the Passion of Christ enables us to know ourselves in stereoptic terms as well. On the lower level we know ourselves first, as Kabasilas puts it, “As we’ve been thrown down into existence with no choice.”
We’ve come into existence passively in time, and just as all the things that come into being in time, we too will pass away. But with a stereoptic vision now open to us, we can see that from the beginning, we collectively and individually have rejected our calling from God Himself, for all have abandoned Christ at the cross. The world is cast down, and the self-sacrificial love that is divine life on the upper register takes on the character of the slaying of the Lamb from the throwing down of the world. Yet at the same time, through the slaying of the Lamb within time, we are also in fact actively brought to participate in the heavenly liturgy through and requiring our taking of the crosse, our saying amen, praising the slain Lamb who is the arche of God’s creation so that the final unity of God’s creation is achieved when God is indeed all in all and now enfleshed with the marriage of the Lamb consummated.
So we are participants in both registers of the drama, above and below, in eternity eschatologically, in time in the present, but in truth, in fact, our citizenship is in the heavens, and for now our life is hidden there with Christ in God, and our life on earth is but a shadow of that reality. We are brought into closest approximation with that true identity in the earthly liturgy which is a participation in the heavenly liturgy and in which we image or represent the cherubim. So in the liturgy, we take our place, as the preface to Basil’s anaphora puts it, we take our place in the whole assembly of rational beings, praising God eternally in the heavenly courts. Anticipated in the present in the liturgy, it will only become a fully present reality at the end after our sojourn and being fashioned upon the earth. Yet as an eternal reality in God, we are always already there and always have been so for our election or our calling into existence is from before the foundation of the world (and our foundation, our formation and our eventual creation).
So it is this apocalypse of the liturgy and the stereoptic vision that it facilitates, I would suggest, that makes liturgy the school of theology. The stereoptic vision opened by the eschatological apocalypses of the cross …structuring our reading of scripture and our theological reflection by the vertical axes of above and below, beginning and the end (the two axises of the cross)—this is held together in the present in a celebration of the eternal eucharistic sacrifice and offering. The apocalypse of the liturgy opens up to us a way of reading scripture and understanding our place in the eternal heavenly liturgy.