A Brief (and Christian) Account of All Reality

Prefatory Note: These are reflections of my own as I continue to process this delightful opportunity that I had to interview Jordan Daniel Wood. I’ll be ruminating for a long time to come over many things that Jordan shared, and I very much look forward to reading his book on Maximus Confessor that releases this October.

It is not at all easy to consider what is real. Moment by moment, most of us fill our pasts with hours of blindness, distraction, and confusion. We leave many moments and events in our lives largely incomplete. We don’t notice much that could have been noticed, and we don’t see the significance of what we do notice. Then, even with what we do notice, we don’t respond with the gratitude, creativity, generosity, foresight, and courage of which we are capable.

Of course this is not always a matter of our own culpability. We are limited in all kinds of ways for which we are not responsible. However, even with things that we might have noticed or done had we been more healthy or more mature, there is a real sadness in our lack. One important aspect of this sadness is that others are often involved with culpabilities of their own because they are responsible in various ways for our woundedness and immaturity. This wide and complex web of damage and lack is not ours to sort out alone. More directly relevant to each of us to consider on our own is that much of our blindness and inaction is because we are distracted by a false image of ourselves that we want to maintain and extend. We don’t see beautiful details about others because we are eager to project our own idea of who we are, or we want to protect what feels vulnerable about ourselves. This means that, as we move through life, we leave behind a world of massive gaps that are filled with false projections of ourselves.

To fill out this vision a little more, these false images are maintained both individually and collectively. Our collective false projections are especially undetectable and powerful—causing us to serve false entities that we assume to be fundamental aspects of reality. These collective false images can be tied to extended families, cities, church parishes, or entire counties. For example, the idea of a uniquely Christian America can be a powerful collectively-maintained false projection that many will give of themselves to sustain without realizing the sacrifices that they are making. Our ideas of God are no doubt the most extensive and devastating collective falsehoods that we uphold. Christians affirm that there is only one true image of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and that no mere idea of God can properly represent God. Every idea of God in any religion is inadequate or false except insofar as it points to the person Jesus Christ. (Christianity also affirms that we are all created in Jesus Christ as members of his body and that we are therefore collectively the image of God, but I digress and will mention this again below in its place.)

All of this adds up to the claim that we live much of our lives enslaved to false images of ourselves and of everyone and everything around us, including God (who, whatever we might believe, cannot be said to be any of the things around us but rather their source and home from within and without). Our largely false and confused experience of reality is a significant part of the human condition in this world (though, as we will see, only a contingent and impermanent condition). Without even considering that their might be many creatures that we cannot typically see in our current condition (a claim that most world religions would historically include in any sketch of reality), all modern humans should be able to agree that a significant part of our lives and of our memories are filled with experiences of things that are not real. We fail to enjoy what is most truly good and beautiful about ourselves and others and our shared world because we are too busy maintaining a host of false images of ourselves, our communities, our places, and our God that each feels comfortable to us and indispensable if threatened.

So perhaps we could all agree that a substantial portion of our experiences involve falsehoods that have filled in large areas of unrealized potential (gaps where the good and the real could have been attentively sought after and welcomed into our lives). Even if that agreement might be possible, we are less likely to agree, however, on what is real. We are a people lost amid a host of illusions (some very ancient and others very new). We therefore cannot agree on what might truly exist among, within, behind, or beyond all of these phantoms that we have made.

Despite this situation, I’ll claim one more area of at least broad agreement: we almost all consider some things to be real. Certain ancient world faiths do claim that virtually every aspect of our experience in this life is illusory, but even these faiths generally claim some transcendent reality of universal peace, compassion, or bliss. Modern nihilism might also be cited as a belief in the reality of nothing, but this is arguably an abstraction that cannot be lived out, while it can, in various confused forms, cause great harm. (Of course, mechanistic and materialistic capitalism might be a candidate for the most consistently lived-out nihilism that humanity has achieved, but I am getting widely off topic.) At any rate, it seems clear that, with a broad agreement over the fact that some of what we take to be real is not real, we’ve reached the end of any line of thought on which hope of widespread agreement might be reasonable.

Unless staying within simple mechanistic and material categories, considering reality itself these days requires extensive communication in order to continue sounding reasonable and to be welcoming of all people into the conversation. My title, however, promised “a brief account of all reality,” so I will not be able to defend my points about reality but will simply state them clearly while recognizing that further defense and explanation would certainly be helpful to most readers who don’t share at least a basic set of common convictions and ways of seeing.

As briefly as I can put it: reality is a connected whole of interpersonal relationships that transcends time as we know it. This does not mean that non-personal entities (such as a block of lead or the number five) are not real but that all of these realities reside as shared aspects of thought and experience within the interconnected web of living persons. If we see interdependent living beings as the basis of a reality that is the gift or manifestation of God’s life, then we have a reason to consider all of time as we know it now to be subject to completion in a more substantial realm that touches every moment of cosmic time with equal immediacy.

Eternity (or any more substantial form of time for that matter) is directly in contact with each moment within all of cosmic history—stretching from the initial singularity from which all things emerged (if scientists have that right) through to the final thermodynamic collapse of the universe in about 10106 years (if calculations are correct by scientists such as Steven Frautschi with “Entropy in an Expanding Universe” in a 1982 issue of Science). My own current moment writing this sentence is as fully in communication with the eternal life of God as is the first moment of the Big Bang or the last flicker of atomic movement before the cosmos settles into a uniform, dilute, and motionless gas of subatomic particles (mostly photons and leptons) that slowly cools to absolute zero.

This might sound bleak and irreligious, but it also means that every moment is equally open to fulfillment or completion in relation to greater forms of time or ultimately in relation to eternity. Within this understanding, creation does not happen at the Big Bang or any other early moment in the sequence of cosmic time. Creation happens equally in every moment of cosmic time. In the Christian understanding, creation happens in each moment insofar as everything in that moment participates in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In other words, Christianity claims that the creation of the entire world takes place with the incarnation of Jesus Christ as fully God and fully human so that the foundation or starting point of all time comes from a point within the middle of history itself, from within time as we now know it. Here is how Jordan Wood expresses this in my recent interview with him:

There are statements in scripture like Ephesians 2:10, “You were created in Christ Jesus.” That doesn’t say, “You were created in this principle, that’s the power of God, called the Word that’s just cosmic and only exists, like, way up there somewhere.” It sounds like it’s saying that the human being who is also God, Jesus Christ—that is where and when you were created. Okay. That already sounds a little bizarre. …Or you could go to Colossians 1 where …it says [Christ] is the arche, the “beginning” of all creation. [Christ] says the same thing of himself in Revelation, chapter three, verse 14. He refers to himself as “the first of God’s works.” …God’s act of creation (which is an act of creating the conditions of all time—past, present, future) …occurred in the middle of that time, rather than, as we would naturally assume, at the beginning (like hitting the first domino).

One way to get at this is to recognize that reality exists within the eternal life of God, and, of course, eternity is capable of containing several kinds of time so that theologians and philosophers also speak about more substantial forms of time than what we currently know. Regardless of various types of time, however, it is only direct contact with the eternal life of God that gives each current moment its existence. In other words, each moment is more fundamentally a result of this contact with God’s life than each moment is a result of the previous moments that led up to it. We can only see the simple one-directional flow of time as we know it now, but time in other forms may be deeper, with currents and connections moving in multiple directions back and forth through its layered structures. Imagine analyzing the patterns of life within a grove of trees if all that you were measuring were the quantities of sunlight exposure and the rates of water consumption for each individual tree with no awareness of the tree roots communicating underground through fungal networks to share water and nutrients from one tree to another or failing to have noted how the trees release pheromones and gasses such as ethylene into the air to warn each other of impending danger? Or imagine if all that you could see and measure of the human body were the movements of muscles or the flow of blood with no way to consider the activities of the lymph system or the nervous system?

Without unraveling all the mysteries of time and eternity, however, we all have some sense of these realities even now. C. S. Lewis reminds us of how, even though we “cannot in [our] present state understand eternity,” we do have a sense of how, “even before death, the good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven.” Using a favorite author, Lewis imagines meeting George MacDonald in heaven near the end of The Great Divorce, and this personal guide to heaven gives Lewis this lesson:

“Son,” he said, “ye cannot in your present state understand eternity: when Anodos looked through the door of the Timeless, he brought no message back. But ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all this earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say ‘Let me but have this and I’ll take the consequences’: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say, ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”

Of course, the experience of having been “always in Hell” cannot have any place within the eternal life of God, as the real George MacDonald would have certainly pointed out. (Not that my own beliefs here matter much at all, but I think that, as God finally separates the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the tares through the judgment of Jesus Christ, each of us in this fallen world will find that we had a false self who acted in keeping with being “always in Hell” although this false self will ultimately give way to our true self who finds that she “never lived anywhere except in Heaven.”)

This vision considers all of cosmic history, in its fullness and truth, as one great living cloth of interwoven persons, moving together and forming a myriad of events connected together by an intricately-layered dance of astounding and festive beauty. Light and elements seethe in rhythmic movements that are beyond any merely human control but that are also clearly pulled here and there by the visions and longings of many free rational spirits. Add to all of this, as several New Testament authors claim, that the entire cosmos is the result of when the Word became flesh so that the whole cosmos originates in and must participate in the resurrected and glorified body of Jesus Christ. As Saint Maximus puts it: “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things” (Amb 7.22). Or see how Maximus explains Gregory Nazianzen’s remark that “the Logos becomes thick” (Or. 38.2, “On the Nativity,” cited at Amb 33.1) by saying that this happens first in the Word’s historical Incarnation when he “deemed it worthy to ‘become thick’ through His presence in the flesh” and second in the entire creation as the Word “ineffably encrypted Himself in the logoi of beings for our sake” and third as the Word becomes thick in human words and language.

In this same line of thought, all aspects of creation can be understood as a banquet where the risen body and blood of Jesus Christ is continually consumed by all and for all to sustain creation itself as one ongoing feast of love. Alexander Schmemann sets out this vision for us in his book For the Life of the World (originally title The World as Sacrament, which Rowan Williams has called “one of the most important theological texts I’ve read in my life”):

This image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life. It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfillment: “that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom.” (11) …In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God. The world as man’s food is not something “material” and limited to material functions, thus different from and opposed to the specifically “spiritual” functions by which man is related to God. All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him. (14)

Seen in this way, all time and all light and all of the elements are expressions of the living and glorified flesh of the eternal Word of God, which is the uncreated light of the burning bush and of the Transfiguration. This flesh participates in eternity and yet is continually given to the world as its one most perfect nourishment. In this, note that each of us is both sustained by the gift of God to us in the rest of creation but also is made part of Christ’s body that we might give of ourselves as nourishment for others. This reflects the inner kenotic life of God in which the three persons of the Trinity each give entirely of themselves for the others. The Spirit returns all of the overflow of God’s glory and life to the Father and the Son. The Son makes nothing of Himself that the perfect image of Father might be shown forth by incarnation and creation as the life of God experienced by free creatures filled by the Spirit. The Father eternally delights in nothing but the Son’s perfect expression of God’s goodness and truth as well as the Spirit’s infinite dance of radiant life.

However we might try to express such fundamental realities, the whole picture (with all of its many living and connected persons) is contained, both in its beginning and its end, within the life of God. Reality consists of a vast number of free rational spirits coming to be within the eternal life of God as a whole body in Jesus Christ who is their beginning and end. We currently experience this sequentially in time, with each imperfect and confused creature contributing both to some enjoyment of God’s presence but also contributing to a long catalog of missed opportunities for feasting upon God and dying in Christ as a nourishment to others. God rejects this incomplete record, however, and judges us in Christ as those who must complete every opportunity. We cannot enjoy the infinite growth inherent to life with God without ourselves first fully cooperating in all that was always intended in our own creation. God’s household will welcome every last child home as a perfectly gifted and capable member of the family who has taken every good step possible on the road to maturity which is the enjoyment—with all that we are—of God’s infinite life.

In speaking of reality as a household of persons who each have their own resurrected body but who also make up one body all together, we come to an image much like the Sophiology of Vladimir Solovyov and Sergei Bulgakov:

In truth, the divine Sophia is first and foremost a biblical figure, and ‘Sophiology’ was born of an honest attempt to interpret intelligibly the role ascribed to her in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, in such a way as to complement the Logos Christology of the Fourth Gospel, while still not neglecting the ‘autonomy’ of creation within its very dependency upon the Logos. …Another way of saying this is that Sophia is creation–and especially human creation–as God eternally intends, sees, loves, and possesses it. The world is created in the Logos and belongs to him, shines with the imperishable beauty of the Father made visible in him, and in the Logos nothing can be found wanting; thus one may say that he, in his transcendence, eternally possesses a world, and that the world, in its immanence, restlessly longs for him. And yet another way of saying this is that Sophia is humankind (which contains within itself all the lower orders of creation) as God eternally chooses it to be his body, the place of his indwelling, and in his eternity this humanity is perfect and sinless, while in our world it is something toward which all finite reality strives, as its eschatological horizon. One can thus speak of an eternal Christ: the Logos as forever turned toward a world, a world gathered to himself from before all the ages just as–in time–we see the world gathered to him in his incarnation. Here Solovyov is following a line of thought with quite respectable patristic pedigrees: seen thus, as the body of the Logos (the totus Christus in its eternal or eschatological aspect), Sophia is scarcely distinguishable from the eternal Anthropos of whom Gregory of Nyssa writes in On the Making of Humanity. She is not another hypostasis as such, but is the personal and responsive aspect of the concrete unity of a redeemed creation united to–and so “enhypostatized” by—Christ; or, looked at from below (so to speak), the ‘symphonic’ totality of created hypostases perfectly joined to Christ. [From David Bentley Hart’s forward to Solovyov’s The Justification of the Good.]

When Hart speaks of “the eternal Anthropos of whom Gregory of Nyssa writes in On the Making of Humanity,” he is referring to a work where Gregory says that only the totality of all humans taken together can properly be called the image of God. (For more on this, I refer you to Fr. John Behr’s forthcoming translation with Oxford  UP of Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Human Image of God, which Behr identifies as the correct title for this work. This book is not only a new translation but includes the first critical edition of the Greek text and an 80,000 word introduction by Behr.)

In each moment of our lives now, we participate in the life of our unfallen self, who we are becoming and who God has known from eternity in Christ. Moreover, everything that we encounter within each moment of our lives now is also in participation with its true self, as it is created good by God through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we turn continually away from the false self that we are seeking to project upon the world and we seek to see the true creations of God in all who surround us. This is not at all to reject the world around us but to receive it gratefully as it truly exists in each moment. Every sensation and detail of creation, every word and look from those around us communicates at least a seed of God’s love that we can learn to start recognizing now and that can become to us the nourishment of God feeding us with Himself. And although many of these seeds are lost to us now amid terrible suffering, we will one day see every one of them completed and made whole under the judgment of our Lord and Savior from His cross demanding that we take up our cross and follow him. While our false selves bow to the empty powers of our incomplete and broken world, our true selves can grow to maturity under the rulership of the Lamb who is slain from the foundation of the world.

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