Note on provenance: These are the very disorganized notes from a lecture that I gave a couple weeks ago to a small group of classical Christian educators. I had far too much content and trimmed much of this away in delivery. I also added a little in person. This includes a substantive summary of (and a brief response to) the paleontologist Alexander Khramov on human origins as well as extensive citations from the theologian Olivier Clément on the nature of time.
Before I begin, I have a few passages to share, each quite different, relating how God with the help of his fiery angels was understood to sustain the existence and life of every creature from within each creature at the core of their being.
The first passage is from John Calvin in volume 1 of his Commentaries on Ezekiel. Calvin writes:
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.
In this passage, Calvin brings into full, parallel participation what we would typically think of as three different things:
- First, the divine energies of God Himself
- Second, the animating life of God’s angels
- Third, the life of oxen, humans and all other creatures
Calvin was writing after many assumptions of the modern Enlightenment were already well established, and yet he was clearly still in touch with what has often been called an enchanted understanding of the cosmos. Our now “disenchanted cosmos” is an idea developed by the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor (referenced yesterday by Chris Hall) to describe a feature of reality that we have lost irrevocably in our post-Christian and secular age. While agreeing with Taylor that we have collectively lost this way of seeing, I’m suggesting ways in which it can still be found at least partially within smaller communities.
There are several ways to understand how our world participates in the life of God himself. Again, Chris Hall mentioned the importance of Artistotalian teleology and final or transcendental causes several times yesterday as he mentioned that every physics rests upon a metaphysics. Tuesday of this week, I listened to a book launch for David Opderbeck’s new book The End of the Law?: Law, Theology, and Neuroscience. Dr. Opderbeck is professor in the Seton Hall University School of Law, and he invited David Bentley Hart and Dr. Jennifer Herdt to critique his new book in Zoom together as a part of promoting it. At the end of a long and technical conversation about the origins of human language and law (with many references to the transcendentals and Aristotelian teleology), David Bentley Hart brought a lot of delight to his conversation partners with this claim:
Your azaleas outside have a longing for the true, the good and the beautiful. …Every blade of grass participates in that teleology and volition towards God.
This is no different, of course, than Dante’s claim in Paradiso 33 that a longing for God is “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Another, standard way of talking about this presence of God within and sustaining all things is to reference fire, warmth and light. The Irish philosopher and naturalist, George Berkley, also an Anglican Bishop, wrote extensively about how all things are made of light. Regarding the source of this light, he says (Siris 187):
At the transfiguration, the apostles saw our Saviour’s face shining as the sun, and his raiment white as light, also a lucid cloud or body of light, out of which the voice came; which visible light and splendor was, not many centuries ago, maintained by the Greek church, to have been divine, and uncreated.
One of the great Greek fathers, Maximus the Confessor, writes (Ambigua 1148C):
The unspeakable and prodigious fire hidden in the essence of things, as in the bush, is the fire of divine love and the dazzling brilliance of His beauty inside every thing, …a shining forth, an epiphany, of the mysterious depths of being.
This image of all of creation on fire from within, like the bush that Moses saw, is a very popular way among the early church fathers of talking about how “God will be all in all” as Paul says of creation fully restored to the dominion of Jesus Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:28.
This is a vision that also shows up in many other places within our literature. We heard this yesterday in Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” In his fairytale novel Lilith, which is about the salvation of Adam’s first wife, George MacDonald has an astounding passage about the light that is internal to every rock, twig and leaf as they continually share their light with each other, each from within the depth of its own self. The contemporary religious scholar David Hart’s young adult novel Kenogaia (that came out this past December) has a passage near the end where, as the young characters are hopelessly surrounded by their enemies, all of the forests and hills surrounding them start to burn with a beautiful golden light from within each tree and rock.
In my talk this morning, I have a general claim and a specific claim to briefly defend. These are not claims that I think should be part of any K to 12 curriculum in any direct way, but they are claims central to our ancient Christian faith and that I think must be passionately considered and discussed among any community of teachers who would hope to pass along the fire of tradition from one generation to the next. And these are claims that I think can help us all a great deal in seeing the world around us for what it actually is, which is, frankly, far more than enchanted. The world is a visible festival of angelic life and a glorious manifestation of our infinitely beautiful God.
My general claim is that we can learn to see the unfallen creation of God—through a veil to be sure, but nonetheless, truly perceived—as we learn to dwell, fully present and attentive in the places that God has given to us moment by moment. This is a vision of reality and nature that comes to us through everything in our material world and that our material world allows us to participate in.
My specific claim is that the fall of our world is atemporal, that is to say that humanity is made by God in an unfallen form of time from which our current experience of time is only a reduced, flattened and repetitive expression. The human fall takes place outside of cosmic time as we now know it. Our fallen time continues to participate in the time of paradise and of God’s unfallen creation, but ultimately fallen time can do this only by means of Christ’s death because fallen time is given over entirely to death. This also means that our fall is not an event that we can find anywhere on the timeline of cosmic history. Our own human fall touches every moment of cosmic history equally.
Neither of these claims are my own claims at all. In fact, these claims are both central to the only ways in which all Christians would have understood the world and God’s life with his creation previous to the fourth century and even long after that in many cases.
We see the idea of our world being fundamentally changed or altered showing up in countless stories. A favorite of mine is from “The Ballad of theWhite Horse” by G.K. Chesterton:
For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.
Chesterton is intentionally reversing our temporal perspective which is, of course, a standard feature of biblical teaching and Christian eschatology.
Another great mythic example of this comes from J.R.R. Tolkien. He told us of the “Straight Road” that was kept open only for the Elves after the fall of Númenor so that they could continue to sail their ships along the pathway of the once-flat sea and across what is now our sky. The bending of our world into its current reduced shape took place in Tolkien’s stories as Númenor fell and sank into the sea. This warped our current world and cut us off from Aman and the realm of the Valar which can now only be reached by the ships of High Elves that can travers out across our firmament. [See “Akallabêth: The Downfall of Númenor” in The Silmarillion for one depiction of this by Tolkien.]
Looking to writers with profound Christian imaginations like George MacDonald or C.S. Lewis, we could continue to explore mythic understandings of alterism, stories and images where it is clear that we were created for another world. Of course, a kind of inverse of alterism is retained in our theological imaginations when it comes to our glorified bodies after the general resurrection. In fact, every single Christian author for the first three centuries of the church at least entirely assumes that the glorified body of Jesus Christ after his resurrection and ascension is just the kind of body that Adam and Eve would have had in Eden before the fall. This is a human body that is metaphysically more substantial than what we currently are capable of enjoying. These are the kinds of heavenly or spiritual bodies that Lewis describes so wonderfully in The Great Divorce.
All ancient Christian authors would have assumed that Adam and Eve possessed bodies like these—the kinds of bodies that Rowan Williams calls fully embodied spirits (page 26 of Looking East in Winter). After their fall, the bodies of our first parents would have been thought to have been reduced in their substantiality and capacities. How this would have been understood conceptually and articulated would have varied significantly of course.
God’s unfallen creation can be most helpfully understood as simply a defense of what is most natural.
Wendell Berry and Rowan Williams have both written a good deal about the loss of what is natural but also about our ability, in each moment, to still enjoy what is natural to us as participants in God’s creation. Two of their texts on these topics are:
- “The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: a Long Conversation” by Wendell Berry which is published in A Small Porch alongside some of his “Sabbath Poems” and which uses C. S. Lewis as an inspiration for considering the long history of Lady Nature within English literature.
- Looking East in Winter by Rowan Williams which is a theological study of our natural condition as human beings and how it can be restored to us through Christian liturgy and the contemplative tradition of the Philokalia.
This focus on learning to be a natural human participant within God’s irrepressibly good creation should come to us as an encouragement. Rowan Williams takes as the title of his book an image from Diadochos of Photiki (who lived c. 400 to 486 and attended the Council of Nicea) about what it is like to stand in prayer, facing into the sunrise on a winter morning. We feel the warmth on our face and front while our back remains cold. In such a moment, we understand that our entire body is made for warmth. There is no question about if our cold self or our warm self is more natural. We are a whole person capable of warmth even though we lack it for a time in half of our body. As we remain facing the sunrise, warmth will eventually reach our whole person. Our task with our students in our classrooms, then, is simply to face the sun and to be grateful for its warmth.
To understand how our world remains in communication with unfallen creation and how the human fall takes place outside of time requires some contemplation of time itself.
In Christian liturgies (including St. John Chrysostom’s and St. Basil’s), we famously hear from the altar that we are to “have in remembrance” all of “those things that have come to pass for us: the Cross, the grave, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming.” What is yet to come is remembered as a past event because the liturgy itself makes the glorious second coming and the dread judgment of Christ present to us as timeless acts of God through His eternal Son.
In a March 2 post on his Substack subscription newsletter, the theologian David Bentley Hart wrote:
This fluidity of temporal perspective is not true merely of the New Testament as a whole; the shifting from past to future, from the present to an end beyond the ages, from the indivisible moment here below to the indivisible aeon there above, and so on, occurs not only in the transition from one book to the next or from one author to another, but right within each book, and within one and the same authorial voice, and even occasionally within a single verse. …Again and again, the immediately approaching future insensibly merges with the indefinitely distant end of history, the present instant collapses into the everlasting now, the near is pervaded by the far and the far is brought near, precise and concrete expectations coincide with luminously impalpable dreams, and the difference between time and eternity melts away. The final judgment is at hand; the final judgment has occurred on the cross; the final judgment happened for each of us in the death and resurrection of baptism; and so on. And yet, at the same time, that judgment comes properly at the limit of all things, and then only thereafter comes the end, when God shall be all in all.
And still now, whenever the Kingdom is announced, that same light of judgment becomes suddenly visible. All at once everything is thrown into relief; the lies by which we allow ourselves to temporize rather than act, to prefer prudence to true charity, to delay the arrival of the Lord’s acceptable day are exposed for what they are.
To return to my own words, our temporal history does properly have a beginning and an end, but this beginning and this end are both also continually with us in each moment as the horizons of our lives (the end more properly ours than the beginning, which, of course, rests only with God in its fullness). Although this sequence of mortal time is bound to death, it is also a gift to us in Jesus Christ through his life, death and resurrection because by these Christ has made our death-bound and fallen condition into an entrance into God’s life. It is an entrance that is always open to us as a reality from which every moment can still be received in Christ as entirely a gift.
In searching for a more fully developed theology of fallen time, I found one respected French theologian Olivier Clément (much praised and cited by Rowan Williams, among others). His wonderful book Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition (only translated in 2019 by Jeremy N. Ingpen from the original 1959 French edition) is probably unparalleled on this topic, but I’ll let you decide for yourself by a generous sampling of it. Clément writes [53-54]:
As fallen beings our awareness of time is irrevocably tied to death, and to some extent knowledge of time is a “memento mori.” …In the time of Paradise, God was present to man and conversed with him. Day succeeded day in a majestic diurnal rhythm that gave birth to new beginnings without rupture, to a propitious diversity, a multiplicity of being made for the expansion of love, in a duration made for a nature striving toward God. Time was thus a kind of permanent miracle, in the sense that the miracle restores nature to its original dynamism, and frees it from the laws by which it had been paralyzed through the Fall. This was the time of a festive world to which we are restored, however fleetingly, in certain moments of friendship and certain artistic experiences. Saint Exupéry called these the Feast of the Encounter. Indeed, this was the time of friendship and espousal: man and God walked together in the cosmic garden, entranced by each other, talking together in the cool air of the evening, in the breath of the spirit. This was a time of Paradise without the dull repetition and sadness of the “end time.” It was the time of a perpetual “for the first time.”
But time was profoundly corrupted by the Fall, which inextricably admixed time and death. Time was given to man on the basis of his insufficiency so that as he moved from insufficiency to fulfillment it would become a movement of love, a dynamic of adoration. Instead, in his claim to be self-sufficient in his state of insufficiency, man transformed time into pure non-identity, reducing it to non-being. The time of miracles became the time of endless repetition. The time of Paradise became the time of absence. The time of opening to fullness became the time of condensation into vanity and non-being. The paradisaical time of ascent is now the time of Satan’s fall. It is no longer the passage from non-being into being. It is instead a passage from being into a vertiginous, insatiable, and ever more ferocious drive toward annihilation. This is time made up of many dead instants, of lost time, of never again. It is time that uses up and mechanizes existence, time that opens onto the uncertain certitude of death, time that sin—that is, separation from one’s neighbor and from God—has endowed with the opacity of death. The most lucid experience it as anxiety; the rest experience it as a flight into daily cares and diversions. …“And God saw that the evil of man on earth was so great and that his heart’s desire was only to form evil plans all day long, and God repented of having made man for the earth” and God allowed the world to slide and begin to dissolve itself into the waters of the second day of creation.
But time is not entirely fallen. Time is not completely identified with the Fall, because the “vanity” of which St. Paul speaks is not, in contrast to the Hindu mâyâ, time itself, but its vampire. It was the man Noah who testified that time could “march with God,” even if it no longer carried the assurance of the ascension of the created toward the uncreated. Noah demonstrated that time, even in its opacity, could become the medium of the promise of faithfulness and of alliance.
Referring to the theology of recapitulation in Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – 202), Clément continues in a later passage :
If Christ recapitulates human history, he also gives the cosmic cycles their full meaning. The Fathers followed up on Philo’s suggestion that all the cosmic symbolism of Greek religion could be assumed into the worship of a personal God. Seeing paganism fatally wounded and unable to break the new faith, they did not hesitate to give a Christian meaning to the cycles of nature. This has nothing to do with hyper-allegorical interpretation. It is the deciphering of the cosmic presence of the Lord, starting from the revelation of his hypostatic presence. As St. Augustine wrote, the revelation of Christ is given to us as “another world,” that allows us to rediscover the meaning of this world, of the “first book of life.” [On Psalm 8:8, De Trinitate; 1.2.1, Confessions.]
Finally, in a series of examples regarding how Christ “gives the cosmic cycles their full meaning,” Clément says [90-92]:
As Philo noted, the rebirth of nature at springtime marks the anniversary of creation, because according to archaic intuition the springtime renewal is in some way an “anamnesis” or remembrance of the cosmic spring and of the original time in Paradise. “In order to remind us each year of the creation of the world God has made the spring in which all is in bud and in flower.” [Philo, De Specialibus Legibus.] If spring is the moment of the world’s creation, it must also be the moment of its re-creation, by virtue of the sacramentality of cosmic time, because God does nothing that is empty of meaning.
In order to purify time polluted by the sin of man, “Christ must rise from the dead at the precise instant of time at which sin entered.” There are three corresponding instants envisaged here, each heavy with the weight of its whole evolution in time: the instant of creation, in which contact with the eternal gives birth to the life of Paradise; the instant of the Fall, in which contact with the relativity of meonic non-being, toward which human freedom veers, admixes primitive time with being-unto-death and the stain of corruption is cast over human generations; and finally, the instant of the Resurrection, in which eternity rises up anew and from which transfigured time and duration proceeds, not simply to restore the time of Paradise but to transform fallen time into the vessel of eternity. There is a very close correspondence linking the two “sudden” instants, in which eternity first gives birth to and then resurrects time.
Clément ends this passage with a lengthy citation from an anonymous Easter homily recorded in Asia Minor during the year 387 [volume 48 of the Sources Chrétiennes]:
“Because He had created a completely pure time in which man could take shape, and because this first time was stained by sin and was corrupted when man transgressed, despoiling the time to come, God took hold of the first times for the purpose of rectifying man, so that at the same time as he purified man, and by the very fact of purifying man from his passions, He also purified the age to come, even from its point of departure.” [By saying] “taking hold of the first times,” [this preacher means that it is the work of God in Christ] to give the cyclical return, the anniversary of the creation, the weight of a new beginning of creation itself, in the mysterious realism of the mimesis to which archaic forms of worship gave body.
Returning to my own words, this understanding of a profoundly fallen time that is nonetheless intended by God to participate in heavenly time has many astounding implications that I am not remotely qualified to talk about. However, I will briefly do my best to outline some of them because I am convinced that teachers of science, math, history, literature (and all other subjects) in classical Christian schools should be among the first to care about these matters and their implications for Christian life together with our students. We can’t really imagine that we’re seeking to restore anything like human formation in premodern terms without some grasp of all this. Moreover, I do have some slight encouragement on this topic recently from my own priest. When I asked him early this spring if I could run a few theological questions past him, he graciously gave me some of his time during a visit to our home for a house blessing and dinner with our family. I ended up asking him about three topics over brownies, and my ideas about an atemporal fall were the one topic out of the three on which he told me that I might be making some decent sense.
One living author who is willing to write about fallen time is David Bentley Hart from his essay “The Devil’s March: Creatio ex Nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a Few Dostoyevskian Meditations” (published in slightly different versions within two books):
The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death.
…It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.
Hart also talks about fallen time at several points in his short and very readable book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2011) which is my top theological recommendation as a starting place with this topic.
Creation, Fall and Modern Science
Without really pausing for breath, however, all of this gets most intense and potentially confusing when any attempt is made to relate it to science. Nonetheless, I do want to touch briefly on this most difficult topic before finally reaching a few more meaningful and applicable conclusions.
Although I have found a couple of trained theologians who have written thoughtfully on the scientific implications of an atemporal fall, there is only one scientist that I have found who has published in English on this topic, and he is the Russian paleontologist Alexander V. Khramov. He authored an article in English called “Fitting Evolution into Christian Belief: An Eastern Orthodox Approach” (published in a 2017 volume of the International Journal of Orthodox Theology). I have also corresponded with him briefly about a book that he published on the same topic in 2019, but that is only available in Russian. (I did learn that he is heartbroken about “Putin’s war in Ukraine.”) I have read Google translations of a few reviews of his book by others with advanced degrees and which were positive. Alexander Khramov was born in Moscow in 1989 and studied biology at the Moscow University. He earned a doctorate in paleontology and now works as a Senior Researcher at the Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. An author of more than 20 technical articles, he has also published more popularly on science topics with National Geographic, Science and Life and others. I have seen his article about an Eastern Orthodox approach to creation and evolution cited with respect by several theologians with graduate degrees (although not by any scientists).
In this particular article for a theology journal, Khramov is actually doing a little theology in order to identify something about the limits of science. He conducts a substantial review of pateristic writers up through Augustine in the two categories of protology that he calls alterism and perseverism. Khramov defines alterism as the universally held belief that “the world as we see it now differs much from the world as it was created” and that “all creation has been altered drastically after man’s disobedience.” Khramov argues that alterism was the only idea within all early church writing up through the later writings of Augustine and that “the early Augustine also held alteristic views which were in contradiction to his later position.” This change in Augustine happened as Augustine developed and defended his doctrine of original sin later in his life. Remarkably, after Augustine, the ideas of perseverism that he invented continued and became the only ideas found among Latin theologians:
According to perseverism, God has created the world such as we can see it now, and it has undergone only minor, not principal, changes due to the sin of Adam, contrary to the teachings of many Eastern theologians. For example, the following expression of perseverism can be found in the “Summa Theologica” of St. Thomas Aquinas, one of its most prominent exponents: “in the beginning of Genesis Holy Scripture records the institution of that order of nature which henceforth is to endure (perseverat).”
…The foundations of perseverism were laid by the later Augustine, mostly in his “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” (401-415) and “The City of God” (413-426). In his understanding of Paradise as a real garden on Earth, Augustine was by no means alone. What was new in his approach was that Augustine felt no hesitation in ascribing all bodily functions we have today to people before the Fall. …In Augustine’s opinion, Adam and Eve would have had to lead an animal life until they and their posterity were taken to heavens to become angels.
All theologians before Augustine and even the early Augustine himself, took for granted that Adam, Eve and the garden of Eden existed in a cosmos that did not have the reduced set of powers and capacities to which our cosmos is now subject. Augustine, however, in defense of his theory of original sin, began to make the case that human biological life and the laws of nature were largely the same before and after the fall of humanity. In subsequent theological history, the ubiquitous older ideas of a cosmos altered and reduced by the fall get so buried that our modern Western minds can now hardly conceptualize them let alone take them seriously.
Compared to our own familiar lines of thought, the differences can be extreme for trained modern scientists like Alexander Khramov when they can take seriously the idea that the human fall might have entirely altered time and space. Here is what Khramov concludes in his article about the immediate results of the human fall:
The Big Bang is the first event on our side of the veil, but we cannot know anything about what was behind the veil, except what is revealed in the Scripture. After all, how can a brain shaped by cruel natural selection learn about life in paradise? We do not know how we ourselves, stars, rivers, plants and other realities of our world looked like before the Fall. Certainly, at that time, the laws of nature worked in different ways from the ways in which they do now since such things as maintaining body power without food were possible. There was no entropy and struggle for existence.
It seems to me that there are some theological errors that need to be corrected or clarified in this passage, but this is not surprising as Khramov is a modern scientist and not a theologian. Primarily, Khramov is wrong to say that “a brain shaped by cruel natural selection” is unable to “learn about life in paradise” without adding that this brain remains a good gift of God that is fully capable of participation with our “nous” or “single eye” (of which Jesus Christ speaks in Matthew 6:22) so that our five bodily senses remain the good and means of receiving and communing with the whole reality of God’s creation despite this creation’s total bondage to suffering and death (and our own bondage to our passions of possession, hate and fear, resulting in our misdirected loves and wills). It is essential that the goodness of our material existence as a means of participation in the life of God is fully affirmed. Theologically, Khramov also fails to point out that the fall of humanity shows up most fully within history with our crucifixion of Jesus Christ and that this event at the center of our history is theologically prior to any cosmic beginnings (as the distinguished pateristic scholar John Behr has written about in both his book John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology as well as his Oxford edition of Origen’s First Principles). It is important to clarify that an atemporal fall of humanity results in the whole of cosmic history with every moment of our cosmic being both an expression of and a cause of this collective atemporal fall.
However, such critical theological points aside, Khramov does well with regard to the defense of his thesis regarding the origins of our cosmos in relation relation to patristic thought, and he cites multiple contemporary Orthodox theologians as well regarding this claim that human history started before the Big Bang within a more complete form of time from which we fell. However, very few English speaking theologians and virtually no scientists would have any concept of this or be willing to consider it at all. Among younger trained theologians, I have found four who have written something on this topic (Jordan Daniel Wood, Charles Andrew Gottshall, David Armstrong and Torstein Theodor Tollefsen, all of whom get at least a mention below). Among more established voices, John Behr has addressed this theologically (although not with any very direct reference to cosmic history that I have found), and this leaves only David Bentley Hart speaking more directly on this topic and with only a few published references such as the one cited above (that “it may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe…”).
Most attentive listeners should have a host of objections clamoring in their minds at this point. Does this relegate modern science to a tiny realm of knowledge? Does this amount to fideism? Does this amount to Gnosticism? How does this line up with the history of exegesis regarding the first several chapters of Genesis and the writings of the New Testament with regard to Adam? There is clearly very much more to be said and considered on such critical topics, but this talk can do no more than raise the topic and leave most such questions unaddressed.
I will say that it is not Gnosticism in any of its heterodox forms because it continues to insist upon a full participation by all of creation within the life of God, so that all of creation remains the direct work of God although limited by what we can currently perceive and marred by the distorted and possessive desires of ourselves and of some principalities and powers who got mixed up in our fall. It is also not fideism. Modern science provides a very good way (potentially) of caring for each other and our world, but modern science can only point us into the realms of reasoning and contemplation where all of the symmetry, harmony, beauty and purpose that science suggests can be further understood beyond the simple and good limits that modern science sets for itself. There is nothing unreasonable about metaphysics and poetry, but they can know more than science can know about nature. This was all perfectly well understood by ancient and medieval scientists, of course, although it has grown profoundly misunderstood and distorted in more recent centuries.
Some church fathers such as Maximus the Confessor would develop very sophisticated metaphysical ideas whereby Adam and Eve might be connected to our collective existence outside of fallen time. Maximus goes so far as to say in three separate places that humanity fell at the very instant of our creation. We came into being as glorious but resistant creatures who were not content with divine life in God’s household and who immediately toyed with some among the angels who were enraptured with us. We were foolish and impetuous children who took others down with us in our insistence upon an alternative to God’s infinite offer of life. In such accounts, most of Genesis chapter 1 was understood as a story that is ongoing, an eternal creation that continues to this day, only in a fallen experience of it on our parts. Augustine clearly expounds Genesis 1 along these lines in some of his earlier writings. Some also understood Genesis chapter 2 as an ongoing story in which we all continue to participate, although the majority of the church fathers certainly considered Adam and Eve to have entered into our fallen historical timeline as particular people from an unfallen time to which we will all be restored (all those who are fully created or made alive through Christ’s death and resurrection).
Only a very few patristic authors such as Maximus would have anticipated anything like what Alexander Khramov describes with humanity existing (perhaps only in some collective body) before a Big Bang when fallen time gets underway and all of us come to be as individual persons in a beautiful but painful sequence within our limited and conditional state of resistance to God and bondage to death. This death, however, (all the early church fathers teach) is still a gift from God that allows us to come into existence as the great host of human persons that God desired from eternity. It is also the means whereby the Lamb slain from the foundation of our cosmos (Revelation 13:8) could still dwell among us and hang with us upon our cross even to the point of willingly undertaking our death with us and making it our entry point into divine life.
One contemporary theologian who makes this same case regarding Maximus and modern theories of evolution and cosmology is Torstein Theodor Tollefsen in his chapter “Saint Maximus the Confessor on Creation and Incarnation” from the book Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology (edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen). Another book that will explore these points even more is The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor by Jordan Daniel Wood (being released by Notre Dame Press in October of this year). It has a foreword by the eminent patristic scholar John Behr and has been most warmly endorsed by the very different but equally distinguished pastrisitc scholars David Bentley Hart and Hans Boersma. I even had the very delightful opportunity to briefly discuss Jordan’s work with Hans Boersma in person around the dinner table in the Perrin home. Boersma has written on the books pre order page for Notre Dame Press:
The Whole Mystery of Christ offers a brilliant interpretation . . . and both its novelty and its audacity will make for an intense and hopefully fruitful theological discussion in the years ahead. This book offers a new paradigm for Maximus scholarship and does it superbly well.
And David Bentley Hart has written:
Wood’s audacity in this book lies not simply in a certain speculative adventurousness, brilliance, and rigor (all of which is extremely impressive), but also in an unremitting willingness to take Maximus at his word, without lazily assigning the most challenging formulations to hyperbole. Consequently, this is simply the best book on Maximus in English, and perhaps the best ever written: it provides endlessly rich material for reflection and argument, it demonstrates that Maximus is still as revolutionary a Christian thinker now as he ever was, and (above all) it rescues Maximus from the sort of scholarship that—out of a misplaced concern for his reputation—has too often sought to tame his grand and exorbitant genius.
I’m glad to see this line of thinking gain some small recognition among English speaking scholars, although I’m clearly not qualified to assert that what I’ve tried to outline here represents any of these thinkers particularly well. I can say that I’ve corresponded a good bit with Jordan Wood and that he has spoken well of the Russian paleontologist Alexander Khramov, so I am not entirely spinning a tale and making crazy connections. In addition, two young scholars with theological training who have written popular articles in defense of an atemporal fall are David Armstrong and Charles Andrew Gottshall. One theologian who I have found explicitly opposed to it is Christopher Southgate in his book The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (2008) which I did not find particularly well informed or persuasive on this particular topic (although it had several other valuable incites more central to its thesis).
To slow down a little then, from within this ancient understanding of our world, we can begin to see our world as, indeed, a profoundly enchanted place—what Rowan Williams and Wendell Berry would insist that we recognize as a naturally enchanted place. Our world is lost and broken in ways that we cannot comprehend from inside of it, but our fallen world also fully participates in God’s life and receives all of its truth, beauty and goodness from God himself, our creator and sustainer. This means many wonderful things, including the fact that we don’t know nearly as much as we might imagine that we know. It means also, that modern science has a very good job to do and place to fill but that it needs to be understood as a limited and specific enterprise.
I find that this vision brings together theology, metaphysics, poetry, myth and all of the arts in profound service of one end: that we who dwell in this fallen world would still know that even this fallen world participates fully in the life of God, that everything good and true and beautiful in this world is directly of God, and that we have every reason to suffer and to serve and to die with joy.
It gives profound meaning to our studies of the classics, to our enjoyment of mythology, fairytale, mathematics and poetry, to our chanting and dancing. It gives pride of place to these shared practices and these traditions of skilled craft that require a human apprenticeship from one generation to the next along with a wisdom of voice and hand.
I am not suggesting at all that we teach metaphysics and systematic theology to our students. I think, more and more, that the ancients were wise to withhold these things until experienced adulthood. However, I strongly believe that our schools are most fundamentally schools within a school where the adults who are laboring together as teachers should be the inner school that maintains a fire among themselves that will spread to their students in their separate classrooms. This means that such topics should be slowly undertaken together by faculty and parents. In some communities, there may be ways to engage some of this with older students directly, but in all communities, I belief that reading and sharing together about these kinds of ideas can give all of the adults more clarity and confidence regarding some of the basic reasons for why we work so hard to help students learn to slow down and to see what is truly there.
End Notes with Additional Quotations
Troparion on December 20 for Forefeast of the Nativity of our Lord
Prepare, O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened to all! / Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, for the tree of life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave! / Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Divine Fruit: / If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. / Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning!
From the most recent book You Are Gods by David Bentley Hart:
If there is one thing on which all the great Orthodox theologians of the last century were agreed, despite all their differences from one another, it was that the entire problem of grace and nature (which was known to them almost exclusively from Thomist sources, many of them French) was a false dilemma created by an inept reading of Paul and by a catastrophic division into discrete categories of what should never have been divided. There is only χάρις, which is at once that which is freely given, the delight taken in the gift, and the thanksgiving offered up for it; and all those things that a distorted theology converts into oppositions or dialectical contraries or saltations—grace and nature, creation and deification, nature and supernature—are in fact only differing vantages upon, or continuously varying intensities within, a single transcendent act, a single immanent mystery.
From Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric D. Perl (2008):
“The goodness of the Godhead which is beyond all things extends from the highest and most venerable substances to the last, and is still above all, the higher not outstripping its excellence nor the lower going beyond its containment.” The entire hierarchy of reality, therefore, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God, of unity and goodness, according to the different modes and degrees that constitute the different levels of being.
For Rowan Williams, as well, this network is not only a human network but includes all aspects of our cosmos (from Looking East in Winter):
We are most distinctively human when we refuse to think of ourselves in isolation from matter and animality; and thinking of ourselves in solidarity with matter and animality involves, among other things, the thinking of the world around us as shot through with the same life of logos that we live from. …We need to think of other substances or agencies in the world in similar terms: they are what they are, they have intelligibility and unity, they can be spoken of and understood, ultimately because of the word that has invited them into life. The life they live cannot be at the mercy of human desire, collective or individual; and we live out our own invited nature, our role in the complex whole, by attending to what God invites other substances to be, and by acting towards them in the light of that discernment. (133-134)
David Bentley Hart in a conversation this past October with David Armstrong:
It’s something worth devoting yourself to. It’s …militantly resisting any suggestion that Christians have any business not believing in fairies. To be honest, I’m afraid that, right now, that’s got to be part of orthodoxy. It’s got to go right in the creed, right after ‘the life of the world to come’ …with ‘and in the meantime, aren’t fairies wonderful.’
Kallistos Ware quotes Palamas in “God Immanent yet Transcendent: The Divine Energies according to Saint Gregory Palamas” (on page 162 of the book In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World by Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke (2004):
Every created nature is far removed from and completely foreign to the divine nature. For if God is nature, all else is not nature; but if every other thing is nature, he is not a nature, just as he is not a being if all other things are beings, and if he is a being, then all other things are not beings. God both is and is said to be the nature of all things, in so far as all things partake of him and subsist by means of this participation. …In this sense he is the Being of all beings, the Form that is in all forms as the Author of form, the Wisdom of the wise and, simply, the All of all things. Yet he is not nature, because he transcends every nature; he is not a being, because he transcends every being; and he is not nor does he possess a form, because he transcends every form. …Not a single created being has or can have any communication with or proximity to the sublime nature. [St Gregory Palamas in the Philokalia, vol. IV, trans. and ed. Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1986), p. 382]
Ware also starts his essay “God Immanent yet Transcendent: The Divine Energies according to Saint Gregory Palamas” with an epigraph of these few lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Thee, God, I come from, to thee go,
All day long I like fountain flow
From thy hand out, swayed about
Mote-like in thy mighty glow.
Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Alexander Schmemann:
One can say without exaggeration that the whole life of the Church is one continuous commemoration and remembrance. At the end of each service we refer to the saints “whose memory we celebrate,” but behind all memories, the Church is the remembrance of Christ. From a purely natural point of view, memory is an ambiguous faculty. Thus to remember someone whom we love and whom we lost means two things. On the one hand memory is much more than mere knowledge of the past. When I remember my late father, I see him; he is present in my memory not as a sum total of all that I know about him but in all his living reality. Yet, on the other hand, it is this very presence that makes me feel acutely that he is no longer here, that never again in this world and in this life shall I touch this hand which I so vividly see in my memory. Memory is thus the most wonderful and at the same time the most tragic of all human faculties, for nothing reveals better the broken nature of our life, the impossibility for man truly to keep, truly to possess anything in this world. Memory reveals to us that “time and death reign on earth.” But it is precisely because of this uniquely human function of memory that Christianity is also centered on it, for it consists primarily in remembering one Man, one Event, one Night, in the depth and darkness of which we were told: “…do this in remembrance of me.” And lo, the miracle takes place! We remember Him and He is here—not as a nostalgic image of the past, not as a sad “never more,” but with such intensity of presence that the Church can eternally repeat what the disciples said after Emmaus: “. . did not our hearts burn within us?” (Luke 24:32).
Natural memory is first of all a “presence of the absent,” so that the more he whom we remember is present, the more acute is the pain of his absence. But in Christ, memory has become again the power to fill the time broken by sin and death, by hatred and forgetfulness. And it is this new memory as power over time and its brokenness which is at the heart of the liturgical celebration, of the liturgical today. Oh, to be sure, the Virgin does not give birth today, no one “factually” stands before Pilate, and as facts these events belong to the past. But today we can remember these facts and the Church is primarily the gift and the power of that remembrance which transforms facts of the past into eternally meaningful events.
I might also reference material from:
- Michael Motia with his 2021 paper “Three Ways to Imitate Paul in Late Antiquity: Ekstasis, Ekphrasis, Epektasis” where he unpacks three influential accounts of mimesis (imitation) in Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (ekstasis), John Chrysostom (ekphrasis) and Gregory of Nyssa (epektasis).
- “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients” by David Bentley Hart in Church Life Journal: A Journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life (2018).